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.
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.