Why The Narrative Surrounding Deafheaven Needs To Die

It’s December, which means that most of the big albums of the year are already out, with a few exceptions (over here, for instance, we’re still waiting on Baroness, Pomegranate Tiger, and Sunn O))) to drop). As such, websites like Rolling Stone, SPIN, and Stereogum have begun their year-end coverage, starting with a bang by dropping their all-encompassing Top 50 of 2015 lists. There are plenty of albums that one would expect to see on these “who’s who”s of good music this year – Kendrick Lamar’s jazz fusion/hip hop monolith To Pimp A Butterfly, Jamie xx’s minimalist EDM release In Colour, and Adele’s 25, which has already become a commercial colossus, to name three – but none that warrant a discussion quite like Deafheaven’s newest blackgaze outing, New Bermuda.

This American black metal five-piece has become the face of metal’s slow subsumption into the mainstream, the unintentional ambassadors between the high-class, ritzy world of “indie” music (which is dead, by the way), inhabited by sites like Pitchfork and their ilk, and the world of metal. It’s an odd position to see a band in, especially one that doesn’t step very far outside the typical boundaries of their genre. Deafheaven has all of the regular stylistic trappings of American black metal: a healthy dosage of post-rock and post-metal sensibility in their music by way of powerful clean/heavy dynamics, guitar parts that are awash with reverberating warmth, a generally melancholic vibe, and production that maintains the lo-fi aesthetic of their Scandinavian brethren but opens the music up to allow for greater breathing room. They are, for all intents and purposes, and regardless of one’s opinion on the band’s quality, a fairly typical American black metal band, walking comfortably down the path blazed in the early 2000s by Weakling, Wolves In The Throne Room, and Xasthur.

In 2013, the second LP from Deafheaven, Sunbather, became an enormous breakout hit, and the band jumped from “just another USA BM band” to potentially the most abrasive and metal hipster sensation ever. Pitchfork’s review of the album lauded the band’s willingness to experiment and called it “a modern classic.” It was universally hailed across indie review sites (as well as more mainstream publications – it received a whopping 92 on Metacritic) for combining the worlds of black metal and shoegaze together into a pastel collage of emotion and beautiful, if extremely depressing, sentiment. Deafheaven rocketed to the top of the charts, and, in a twist to these sorts of stories, have actually stayed there since.

Heavy Blog family member Nick Budosh in just one of the hundreds of Sunbather-related memes out there.

Heavy Blog family member Nick Budosh in just one of the hundreds of Sunbather-related memes out there.

Unfortunately, part of the reason they’ve managed to maintain such a large cult following is because of the perpetuation of a myth about the band’s sound: the idea that Deafheaven is unique in the world of music. Integral to a large percentage of the hype around this band, at least from the indie side of the spectrum, is the sentiment that their combination of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock elements is one of a kind, something not done before or replicated since. Of course, a band being held up as the poster child for their genre after one landmark album is nothing new, but in the case of Deafheaven, it creates an echo chamber in certain segments of the music community that reinforces the opinion that they are original and that it’s a given fact, so people build their thoughts off of that baseline.

The other problem is that this blatant worship of the band for being refreshing and altogether different without any context of the scene and music they grew out of makes them appear ignorant of the current black metal scene, regardless of whether they are or not. Singling out and holding up one group that, quite frankly, doesn’t really do much different than their contemporaries makes these sites look at best uninterested in helping the scene grow – a cardinal sin in metal – and at worst fraudulent in their love, playing Deafheaven off as nothing more than just a badge worn to establish credibility in the indie world.

This is bad for a couple of pretty serious reasons. First off, creating the narrative of Deafheaven as such a polarizing band only serves to further drive a wedge between the indie community and the metal scene that birthed the band, something that benefits nobody except (for now, anyway) these indie websites, and, secondly, it unnecessarily occupies the space for modern metal bands that truly are blazing new trails into the genre’s frontiers and can even lead to stifling the creativity of other bands that play the same sort of music as Deafheaven. Now, it should be said before going any further that these other sites don’t have any particular responsibility to portray and cover metal (the music and the various scenes) the same as predominantly metal sources do, and no one should expect them to possess the same intense depth and knowledge that other publications that solely cover metal do. But, it’s also not unreasonable to expect websites that have displayed interest or even competency in covering metal as a part of their repertoire to possess some level of knowledge, history, and context when discussing these sorts of things. This is particularly true given that sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum actually have reputable metal writers as staff or contributors (Brandon Stosuy for Pitchfork and a whole slew of people from Invisible Oranges for Stereogum).

The co-opting of Deafheaven into the indie scene and presenting them as a controversial band in metal benefits nobody in the long run besides these websites.

Which is what makes the content they choose to put out about it so maddening at times. On September 17th, Pitchfork crested the wave of New Bermuda hype with an article that falls right into line with this narrative. “Hate It Or Love It: The Return Of Deafheaven – Metal’s Most Divisive Band” (penned by well-known shit-stirrer Ian Cohen) is quite possibly the best example out there of this. The article starts off by saying the band has been “routinely derided as frauds, poseurs, and hipster rich kids” by the “notoriously cloistered metal community.” Digging up examples of this that are anything more than isolated Facebook comments or anecdotes by writers on the indie side of the fence is actually pretty difficult. The opinion that Deafheaven is a divisive band is something that started with sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum wanting to claim the band as their own, as “the metal band for people who don’t like metal,” based on their emotional intensity, willingness to integrate external influences into their sound, and overall “artsy” vibe. Is it a fair description? Sure, but one could say the same thing of Lantlos, ISIS, Pelican, or any other band that incorporates elements of other genres into their sound, bands that rarely, if ever, receive the same kind of coverage or narrative from any of these sites. The co-opting of Deafheaven into the indie scene, and presenting them as a controversial band in metal benefits nobody in the long run besides these websites; in the metal world, people are very accepting of the band by-and-large, and most of the controversy surrounding them these days stems from people justifiably being sick of these indie sites holding up Deafheaven as the golden boy of modern heavy music.

This echo chamber also has the consequence of stifling the voices of artists that are actually doing something different and new. Young indie sites are being duped by these echoes into thinking that Deafheaven is the only band creating fresh, artsy black metal, and them being kept from a whole world of music isn’t going to do anybody any favors in the long run. By proclaiming blackgaze to be the be-all-end-all of experimentation in black metal, bands like Shining (NOR), Panopticon, and Petrychor – all bands that are taking black metal to bizarre, unique, exciting new places – are pushed out of view. One would think that sites would catch on to Shining’s combination of avant-garde jazz, black metal, and industrial rock, but the monolith of Deafheaven hype keeps their new album, International Blackjazz Society, out of view (it did receive an album review on Pitchfork, but was only given a paltry 3 paragraph write-up). Panopticon seems even more ripe to be plucked from the American scene by these indie writers with their combination of Americana folk music and atmospheric black metal, but by and large they’ve stayed underground, relegated solely to the world of metal. The same goes for Petrychor’s combination of folk, krautrock, and black metal.

Bands that play similar music are suffering too: Ghost Bath was called out in the same Pitchfork article (Hate It Or Love It) for ripping off Deafheaven’s sound with their 2015 album Moonlover, when in reality both are just blackgaze releases. One could chalk the record’s name and song title “Happyhouse” up as allusions to their more successful brethren, but that’s about where the overt similarities end. Other than that, both bands are very different entities that just happen to exist within the same genre, but going by the indie coverage of Sunbather and New Bermuda, one wouldn’t even know that there existed a genre to which Deafheaven’s music belongs.

Bottom line: it’s disingenuous and wrong of indie music sites to hold Deafheaven in such high esteem while giving nothing back to the scene the band comes from.

By actively distancing Deafheaven from the modern black metal scene and co-opting the band’s sound into their own taste, while doing nothing to help promote any other bands within the genre, they’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy that is slowly causing a full split between the metal scene and the world of indie, something that benefits nobody, especially as we walk further and further into an age where such delineations are entirely meaningless. So please, let’s shut ourselves out of this echo chamber and help nurture the scene, instead of letting it die.

-SH

Comments

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12 thoughts on “Why The Narrative Surrounding Deafheaven Needs To Die

  1. BarakalypseNow Reply

    People with metal knowledge know the score. Some love Deafheaven and some don’t, but both know that they aren’t the only band out there that’s doing this stuff. Weakling, WITTR, Alcest all did it before. Which isn’t to take away from Deafheaven’s accomplishment at all, it’s just fact. Let the indiefags think that they can call Deafheaven their own because some metalheads like to talk shit about bands they don’t like. Metalheads have been doing that since the dawn of time. No one who matters will buy their story anyways.

  2. Reyaan Shah Reply

    Thanks for the mention, I am a young guy and am incredibly new at what I am doing so I appreciate both the exposure and criticism alike. In recent months I have become increasingly more aware of how mislead my descriptions of the “ambition” in Deafheaven’s sonic and melodic endeavors actually are due to expose to several new artists, some of which you even stated. This said, my confidence in and admiration for the structure of the general Deafheaven track still stands. Artists such as Pink Floyd, Swans, as well as a few newer to me such as Sun O))) and Deerhunter’s Lotus Plaza have made and are making the kind of music that I find far more value in than the usual fare. The the sheer length of many tracks in addition to their variety and progression has a neat ability to, though possibly only for me, render each track an experience with each turn in the song resulting in some emotional reaction from the listener. This accumulation of reactions, ringing quite frankly extremely similar to a regular given experience in one’s life, allows a song by Deafheaven and a number of other artists to assume a scope far greater than much of what I have heard from black metal, little as that may be admittedly. I am now aware that Deafheaven is certainly not matched in its sonic ambition, and I sincerely doubt that it is unmatched in its scope due to the sheer fact that I haven’t explored black metal in a way I likely should, but it is important for me to note that the scope of an individual track and the resultant massive scope of each individual album serves as my primary argument for why Deafheaven is somewhat impervious to the general criticism I find far easier to apply to most-all other artists I review. Thanks for the very enjoyable read!

    • el chalupacabra Reply

      wow man, thanks so much for reading! i agree that deafheaven is definitely a good band (and i’m also super into Pink Floyd and Sunn) but i think it’s an important thing to note that they aren’t unique in their sonic ambition and scope, and instead are just a more modern iteration of what bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Alcest, and others have been doing for some time.

      that being said, they’re definitely the face of modern black metal and that’s entirely alright by me – their formula works and they make quality music that’s relatively easy to swallow and provides a great entry point for the genre. by all means, i love that people enjoy this band and that blackgaze is being brought to a new audience, i just think it’s very unfortunate for everyone that there’s this weird idea that they’re the only band like that out there – especially for people in your position who are being duped into thinking that a whole genre of fantastic music doesn’t exist.

      on a related note, we found your article by way of the caustic, crude, and downright mean facebook post that Daemoness Guitars made about it, which we all laughed at him for, because he’s got a huge hate-boner for deafheaven and is generally a huge dick. although i didn’t exactly bring up your article in the most positive light either, i hope my criticism didn’t come off as mean, unfair, or unwarranted. i enjoy your writing and i look forward to seeing more on my facebook feed from popchata in the future.

      thanks again for reading; thanks even more for taking the time to reply. it means the world to me.

      -sh

      p.s. if you’re interested in finding other bands similar to deafheaven, this article we wrote may be of service to you: http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2015/08/06/starter-kit-post-black-metal/#more-89340

      • Reyaan Shah Reply

        Thank you for the prompt reply! (Last thing I’ll send I promise) Your criticism was by no means unwarranted and quite frankly I appreciate any chance to see an opposing viewpoint without any sugarcoating. As for the Daemoness Guitars post, I checked it (and its many comments) out and had a pretty nice laugh with a few friends of mine.

        On a relatively unrelated note, I checked out a bit of your site and you guys seem to have a really nice thing going. My small team of writers and I are only seniors in high school and don’t really have much experience at all, but we’re still really enjoy writing about the music we love and the exposure from a reputable site as this makes us feel like our project is actually worth something. I have big hopes for my site despite not really having the resources and traffic as of yet to get anywhere anytime soon, but I know for a fact that following the example of a site like this will surely aid me in making my site something far bigger than it currently is.

        Any advice or guidance would surely be appreciated. The idea of being able to communicate with staff members of a site like this is really quite valuable, and I think it’d be detrimental to not at least take the opportunity to learn. I hope you’ll welcome an email or two sometime in the future. We’re just kids after all so there’s no doubt we could use some help.

        Thanks again!

        • el chalupacabra Reply

          i’m glad to hear that you guys were unfazed by the criticism and derision coming from Daemoness. dude’s a total ass.
          if you want some tips and such, i can;t promise anything directly from me, seeing as i’ve been here for less than a year myself, but email us at mail(at)heavyblogisheavy(dot)com to get the conversation started! we’d be happy to talk to you.
          -sh

  3. Omens Reply

    Very interesting article, I agree 100%. I think that a good part of the dislike that DH gets from the metal community comes from the fact that they have been embraced by the indie-hipster crowd as “the only” metal band worth of attention, which is a shame. This backlash feedbacks within the indie-scene, perpetuating the stereotype that metalheads are closed minded, knuckle dragging neanderthals who only listen to one genre of music (which is, needless to say, total bullshit), thus deepening the crack between scenes.

    Personally, I don´t like DHs music. For the most part I prefer my black metal intense, epic and mean. The only simmilar band that I personally enjoy is Alcest, but they went full shoegaze on the last one.

  4. You did a thing Reply

    “Deafheaven are among the rarest of breeds. Their uncanny ability to write music that so perfectly conveys the emotion they express with their lyrics is something that had been lacking for such a long time in the metal world. Sunbather is the perfect example of what happens when you do everything right. Deafheaven have not only reached their potential, but gone above and beyond it, reaching new heights in the world of metal as one of the best USBM bands out there.” (4.5/5) – Heavy Blog Is Heavy

    • el chalupacabra Reply

      hey, thanks for the comment. i can see where you’re going with this, but i feel the need to say a few things and clarify a couple points.

      first off, that review is solely about the quality of the music, not about deafheaven’s status as some lone wolf renegade band that is the only group out there combining shoegaze and black metal. nothing in our review of Sunbather seeks to mythologize deafheaven as a uniquely experimental driving force within black metal or music in general, merely to present a view on the album and an opinion on its quality.

      secondly, it’s worth noting that multiple writers write for this site, and we all have different viewpoints. we’re not a sole monolith of opinions that spits out articles based on a unanimous thought process, we are a body of writers and thinkers that maintain a pretty healthy level of discourse and debate. what the writer of that review thinks is by no means representative of my thought process and opinions in regards to the band.

      lastly, using a tangentially related album review by a different writer on our metal-focused website, a piece that is over 2 years old at this point, does not exactly constitute a “gotcha” moment.

      hope that clears up your concerns with potential hypocrisy on our part.

      -sh

      • You did a thing Reply

        HBIH did exactly what every other “indie sites” did and praised Sunbather when Deafheaven was hip. Now that Deafheaven is held up on some pedestal, in which your site and many others helped put them on, it’s all of a sudden some type of issue? This site helped create the narrative you’re so against regardless of two different writer’s opinions. If you’re expecting indie sites to do their homework on trve underground experimental/atmospheric/cascadian/post-whatever black metal then you’re expectations are too high. Their “originality and groundbreaking statues” are a direct result of websites like you claiming that “Deafheaven have not only reached their potential, but gone above and beyond it, reaching new heights in the world of metal as one of the best USBM bands out there.”

        • Eclecticore Reply

          If I may, I don’t believe any of us have said that sites shouldn’t cover Deafheaven and praise them where praise is due. It’s all a matter of context. You can say that the band are doing something great that is lifting up USBM to greater exposure and greater creativity, but it shouldn’t end there. It should lead to greater discussion of other bands who are doing other great things for the music and scene. And what it certainly shouldn’t lead to is a greater discussion of the “controversy” of Deafheaven as an idea than of the music itself. Those are the aspects that we wanted to point out.

          That said, we are not perfect or infallible, and it’s possible that some of us at the time were swept up somewhat in the hype of Sunbather when it came out. But you’ll notice that since then our coverage of them has been neither overwhelmingly positive or negative. There are a whole range of opinions about their music on our staff (we actually put out two reviews of New Bermuda precisely because of this), but the one thing we all agree upon is that 1) they’re worthy of discussion, and 2) they’re not worthy of being viewed as “controversial” or “polarizing” in the way that other people and websites have gone to great lengths to talk about.

          Anyway, I hope you’re coming into this looking for an actual discussion rather than to simply point a finger and call us hypocrites, because all of us are more than happy to do the former and have little interest in engaging with the latter.

          -NC

          • You did a thing

            “And what it certainly shouldn’t lead to is a greater discussion of the “controversy” of Deafheaven as an idea than of the music itself. Those are the aspects that we wanted to point out.”

            Deafheaven as an “idea” is the direct result of literally all of the praise, memes, marketing, and publicity. Your Sunbather memes pushed the Deafheaven “idea” narrative you’re so against. If the majority thought they were terrible they wouldn’t be held in such regard as they are currently. Honestly, I doubt the band even expected on all of this popularity and reception. The reason why they are considered “controversial” and “polarizing” by non-metal media is because they don’t sit around all day and dive into an entire niche sub-sub-genre of music just to cover one band. Even if those “indie” publications had “metal” writers “controversy” brings viewership and it’s a solid marketing strategy. The simple fact that we are having this discussion means that you fell for their “controversy” because you’re still talking about it.

    • Eden Reply

      This comment is a bit sad in its intent. If you read the article above, our criticism is pointed towards a very specific narrative, one which is not conveyed in the quote you posted above. No one hear thinks that Deafheaven is a bad band. They are a rare breed because of the quality of their music; not because of their originality or groundbreaking statues. THOSE are the things that we call out in the article above, not the quality of their music.

      Also, everything that Simon wrote. Better luck next time.

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