The End of Novelty

Deafheaven. Belfast, August 2014.

A few months ago, I stumbled onto Deafheaven’s last record, Sunbather. This is a pathetic admission for a guy who spends a large proportion of his free time searching out new music. But in my defense ,the cover of Sunbather is pink, and I must have been thrown by that the first time I saw it among the new black metal releases. In any case, I thought was very good. Their most recent disc, New Bermuda, came out earlier this month. More about that in a moment, but I thought I’d devote a few lines to something I find almost more interesting than either of those records: the degree to which Deafheaven are controversial.

After rather belatedly discovering this band, I’ve been kind of shocked to find how deeply they divide opinion and how passionately. Lots of people love them. I am one of them. Lots of people really, really hate them. A good sort of back-of-the-envelope way to see this is that of the roughly twenty reviews of Sunbather on Encyclopedia Metallum, the average rating is 59% with roughly as many scoring it below 10% as above 90%.

They get branded as hipster metal and for what reason exactly I do not know. They share a lot of melodic sensibilities with bands like Pelican or Russian Circles, who are hipster bands I guess. [As an aside: I think this is really hilarious simply because I’ve loved both of those bands for years and I am and always have been catastrophically unhip. It’s how I roll]. I mean, it can’t be their visual aesthetic, right? Black button down shirts have been a staple in extreme metal from Dark Tranquility to Spite Extreme Wing and on and on down the line. So…what then?

I suspect that it has something to do with their treading on the neurotic, decrepit fields of black metal propriety. Pretty much from the get go, black metal was about defining who was in and who was out. At the very start it was the four guys in Mayhem, plus Gylve Nagell, Kristian Vikernes, and about half a dozen other booze-sodden dropouts hanging out in a basement in Oslo. Then it caught on, and all the purists (plus the hundreds and thousands of hangers-on who liked to think that they had been into it before it was cool) cried rivers of ebon tears about how something so pure and wonderful/evil could have been polluted by the stinking masses. Never mind the fact that the whole thing was originally a mix of Venom, Celtic Frost, an almost complete lack of musical ability, and a good measure of we’re-great-because-we-say-we-are bravado. Anyone who listened to Dimmu Borgir’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and liked it had to be some kind of neophyte (and thus a cretin).

Through the years, black metal has seen wave after wave of budding atavists each claiming to revive the true original spirit of the genre producing music whose most pronounced characteristics are lack of imagination and lack of novelty. And in each these projects are accompanied by shrill denunciations of those who have sold the precious dark soul of black metal for a few pieces of silver. There are probably more tiresome things in the world extreme music, but I’m really having a hard time thinking of them right now.

Whatever else one might want to say about Deafheaven, they are, in terms of structure and technique, well within the stylistic ambit of black metal. But they are more than simply that: they are the direction that black metal should have taken long ago to relieve the weight of bogus orthodoxy that weights like a nightmare on the brains of its traditionalist practitioners. The music that Deafheaven have released so far is a thousand times more creative and interesting than pretty much anything that has emerged from the bloated corpse of black metal in the last decade. Holding this view probably makes me uncool. I’m OK with that.

Let’s be clear here: the question is whether it’s justifiable to hate on something simple because people one considers uncool like it. Not necessarily. It’s not like the case of the band Ghost, on whom one can hate without compunction because the music that they make is relentlessly mediocre (irrespective of their image). The metal cognoscenti seem to dislike Deafheaven as much because they (apparently) don’t fantasize about running around in the hoary northern woods, blow gigantic fireballs, or wear silly hats.

What probably underlies this is the sneaking fear that other styles might leak into black metal. This has, of course, happened before. But up until now the leakages have, by and large, been from genres like death metal or electronica that are stylistically more proximate to black metal itself. Deafheaven have had the temerity to alloy black metal with post-rock. The question now is, what is this hybrid, and what does it mean for black metal going, so to speak, going forward?

Terms and categories applied to popular music tend to be discussed and qualified until their descriptive content disintegrates entirely, and post-rock is no exception to this rule. As near as I can tell it arose in the 1970s, but without consistent content or referents. In the 1990s, it was often used in relation to bands like Stereolab, Bark Psychosis, Mogwai, and others whose stock in trade was creating aural constructions that eschewed the common structures of traditional rock music. As with any such designation, merely to assert it invites expansion. If the standard is using rock instrumentation but avoiding the forms and intervals bequeathed to rock by its origins in 12 bar blues and country and western music, than anyone with even a modest familiarity with the history of popular music can add to the list almost effortlessly. From Can, to the Velvet Underground, to the Slits, or the Pop Group, maybe even the Gang of Four, or Mission of Burma, it’s not too difficult to name groups that have started out in the rock format and ended up at various locations off the deep end.

Post-rock, like postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-whatever, implies a temporality, the assertion that something that has existed has now been superseded by something else. But in the case of rock, this supersession has not occurred. Rock persists, maybe more or less atavistically, especially when placed beside the (only slightly) fresher sounding hip hop and EDM styles comprised, generally speaking, popular music. The various families of rock music have, since the 1970s, seemed stuck in pendulum swings between retro-purification and decadence. So, for instance, the English punk scene, an important incubator of the most influential stylistic innovation in the last quarter of the twentieth century was, fundamentally, an attempt to throw off the stylistic decadence of bands like Yes and Genesis, by stripping down the atavism of the London pub rock scene.

Black metal, one might have thought, would have been very much immune to post anything. The stylistic ideology of the genre is a sort of neurotic atavism, and its origin story is really not that different from that of punk. The atavism itself, as is so often the case, was mostly a put on anyway. One is reminded here of an article that the historian Paul Betts published in 2002 (“The New Fascination with Fascism: The Case of Nazi Modernism, Journal of Contemporary History 37 (4) 2002: 541-558) in which he argued that the apparent atavism of National Socialism was in fact evidence of the movement’s commitment to a certain variety of modernism. This point holds a fortiori for all varieties of black metal, whose nods to the non-contemporaneous really only solidify their connection to the current moment. Perhaps the reason (or at least one reason) that Deafheaven come in for so much flak is that they don’t even both with appearing to look backward. Given that popular music has been churning along in a condition approaching stasis for the best part of twenty years, Deafheaven’s music is at least one small step away from the established norms of the genre.

Deafheaven’s new disc, New Bermuda, is much the same as their last. Blast beats and screamed vocals underpin melodies that spiral upward before settling down into jams that would not be out of place on Russian Circles’ Memorial or Pelican’s City of Echoes. It’s impossible to tell what the lyrics actually are without referring to the accompanying sheet, so the vocals themselves become, in effect, yet another instrument contributing to the sonic topography that they create, and in this respect they are also similar to the aforementioned bands.

As with previous releases, Deafheaven’s music comes with a heavy admixture of melody. But theirs is rather different from either the single string lines rawer bands (such as early Nachtmystium) or the more symphonic approach of a thousand bands post Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse. Here too, we find a source of much of the animus that the black metal establishment seems to feel toward this band. The melodies that one hears on New Bermuda, to an even greater extent than on Sunbather, are reminiscent of the mainstream rock of the 1970s. Of all the possible influences that one could conceivably integrate into black metal, these are far and away the least cool. There is nothing dark, evil, or raw about this and one is not surprising that the use of these references causes the neurotics of the black metal scene (and its broader cognates) to gag.

As the past and the future are increasingly compressed into one continuous present, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell whether there will ever be anything new again. Deafheaven’s music has the form of novelty, but perhaps it is that their connections to the stylistic accretions of the last twenty years of metal that has caused a critical turbulence around their music. They may not be new, but they are as close to new and the prevailing conditions allow, and that, at least, is something.

Photograph courtesy of Jamie Hunter. Published under a Creative Commons license.