Calling an album “transcendent” is like saying a book is “interesting.” This is partially because music is, by definition, transcendent. Musical activity—playing music and listening to music—exists outside of the realm of regular human activity. For thousands of years, philosophers (and even mystics) from Plato to Adorno have struggled to make sense of music’s extraordinariness. Music is intensely material, produced by human movements and physical instruments. But it is also ephemeral and immaterial. The same performance cannot be heard twice. Every song is heard differently by different people each time it plays.
While no book reviewer would ever use the word “interesting,” music reviewers (and pop and rock critics in particular) seem to have no qualms about using “transcendent.” Deafheaven’s most recent album, New Bermuda, like its predecessor, Sunbather, has been called “transcendent,” “inspiring,” and other overwrought clichés. This is a shame not only because Deafheaven’s music deserves better writing, but also because the lazy writing obscures what Deafheaven’s music does transcend: the rigid boundaries and definitions of genres, the traditional ways of writing about rock music, and the limits on the kinds of emotions that extreme music can evoke.
Like their previous albums, Deafheaven’s New Bermuda demonstrates an incredible comfort with different and often divergent genres. And while in pop and electronic music today, experimentation with genre might seem like the norm, the style-mixing that Deafheaven pulls off is rare and even controversial in the metal scene. Metalheads, despite their outward appearance, are very concerned with musical aesthetics. Certain chord progressions, melodies, and drum beats belong to specific genres. And the boundaries between these genres are strictly policed. It’s one thing to pair black metal’s incessant, rapid snare-bass blast-beats and tremolo guitars with some unconventional chords. It’s another thing entirely to scream over the verse of what sounds like an indie rock song.
New Bermuda preserves the genre-bending found on Sunbather, the band’s previous album, but it also shows the Deafheaven’s embrace of more traditional metal styles. The album still features their typical somberness and sensitivity, but, unlike on Sunbather, there are parts that are fun or almost corny. Metal, and black metal in particular, is often preoccupied with creating dark and dangerous musical atmospheres, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. There are endless parodies of the song titles and stances that black metal bands take to appear true to one especially Scandinavian conception of what metal means. And yet New Bermuda avoids the gothic spectacle of other metal bands while still showing the band’s sense of humor.
Deafheaven is a metal band, in the widest sense of what metal means. They play heavy and often abrasive music with distorted electric guitars, hard-hitting and rapid-fire drums, and screamed vocals. So much energy has been devoted to debating how to properly classify Deafheaven that I’m reluctant say anything about their genre label other than the following: While Deafheaven draws on a kind of sound and instrumentation that traces its roots to European black metal, they incorporate techniques, textures, and chord progressions from other genres (e.g. shoegaze’s reverb, noise, and wall-of-sound and post-rock’s emphasis on timbre and atmosphere). Deafheaven’s music is not easy listening; someone who only listens to pop would have a hard time sitting through New Bermuda or Sunbather. But Deafheaven’s music is also more harmonically and structurally varied than most metal. This is partially why, despite being a band that screams, they’ve become well-known enough that Sunbather’s sunset-pink cover appeared in an Apple advertisement. Songs on both New Bermuda and Sunbather feature acoustic guitar strumming, piano interludes, and melodies closer to indie rock than heavy metal.
New Bermuda opens with the pummeling “Brought to the Water,” and the first time I heard the song I smiled. It is Deafheaven at their most headbangable yet, their clearest statement of heavy metal intent. It’s the kind of metal that makes a metalhead hold up his index-finger and pinky and make devil-horns, the international heavy metal salute. I first listened to the song on a public bus on the way to the airport and started banging my head involuntarily.
After an intro of distorted chapel bells, the song blasts into repetitively strummed dark minor chords. The chords move up a half step every four bars. The song marches forward ominously. For a moment, the march breaks, and the other instruments drop out. Only a single guitar and a skittering high hat remain. Then drummer Dan Tracy delivers a thunderous fill and the rest of the band kicks back in, vocalist George Clarke screaming along. The thrash-y guitar paired with blast-beat drums and later with a mid-tempo double bass drum rumble could belong on an album like Norwegian black metal masters Immortal’s Sons of Northern Darkness. Later, the song’s aggressive dissonance gives way to more varied chords that demonstrate Deafheaven’s softer influences. A guitar solo begins. I remember the first time I heard this solo I audibly cracked up. It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the song, and not in the typical Deafheaven way. Deafheaven’s albums tend to be less like collections of different songs and more like single, complete works comprised of different sections. But this solo, which led into a brief section with undistorted electric guitars, felt too out of place. I’ve listened to the song maybe fifty times and the solo stills surprises me. It feels too triumphant, it’s almost cheesy. But I like it.
Deafheaven has a signature drum beat, a kind of musical treading water where the symbol hits evenly on every eighth note but the bass drum hits are syncopated, snuck into the end of the measure. This creates a repetitive churning rhythm, a revision to the traditional four-four rock beat that builds tension. The treading water beat appears on “Brought to the Water,” “Luna,” and almost all of the other tracks on the New Bermuda.
Deafheaven’s music always juxtaposes two layers. The tempestuous rhythm section storms beneath almost serene, ethereal arpeggios on the electrical guitars. Chords, drums, and fuzz blur together—tonality subordinated to texture—stopping momentarily to regroup, only to return to blasting. “Luna”, the album’s second track combines vicious metal riffing with chord progressions and textures that evoke a range of emotions from agony to anger and woe to wistfulness. The song opens with a heavy palm-muted riff. The influence of Immortal and similar bands is again immediately audible. The song transitions to blast-beats, but the deceptive turns that Deafheaven makes appear on this track, too. Spectral, single notes on the guitars ring out over the snare’s jackhammer hits. At one point on “Luna” the entire band stops playing, leaving a second of reverberating distortion before launching back into the musical waters. In the song’s softer section, low bass notes slip through the lighter guitar and drums. Towards the end, “Luna” features a singer-songwriter sounding glimmer that is answered with big heavy chords, and dense, alternating modalities. When a descending guitar riff begins, Clarke screams, the sound tears away from his vocal chords, coming from something or somewhere deeper—the kind of scream that begins in the stomach and explodes from there.
While Sunbather was a cautious album, carefully brewed with equal amounts of different genres’ ingredients, New Bermuda is much more traditionally a metal album. “Baby Blue”, the album’s middle track, starts with undistorted, shimmery guitars and the bare bones of the drums treading water. Individual, ascending picked notes give the feeling of anxious progression as the song builds, the rhythm section tosses and turns. Distorted guitars break the tension as Clarke begins to scream. But four minutes into the song, there is a guitar solo played through a wa-wa pedal. The solo approaches tacky—the kind of hammy Kirk Hammett solo you might find on a Metallica album. The solo refers to the canon of slightly hilarious and very eighties-hair-metal kind of songs. But extreme metal doesn’t have to be unrelentingly serious, or more accurately in Deafheaven’s case, thoughtful. Alongside the mournful chords and big-sounding drums, Deafheaven shows that its music can be playful. “Baby Blue” demonstrates the contrasts that are part of Deafheaven’s style.
“Come Back”, the album’s second to last track, also manifests Deafheaven’s divergent influences. It has an extremely heavy, Testament-like riff, and the guitar tone almost hints at deathcore—the hybrid of hardcore punk and death metal that has become heavy music’s most commercially successful sub-genre. The quick transitions between heavy and soft sections, between distorted and clean guitars, also point to progressive rock.
Come Back” ends with strummed acoustic guitar beneath an electric guitar’s wistful melody. Earlier in the song, the guitars are fuzzy enough for black metal (whose most committed adherents prefer their instruments to sound like buzz-saws) but clear enough to have a discernable melody and texture. Their combination of musical violence and classical virtuosity is reminiscent of Dissection, a Swedish band considered the founders of a sub-genre called melodic black metal. Dissection’s 1993 album, The Somberlain, was one of the most significant albums to pair the diminished, tremolo guitars of black metal with the grooves, riffs, and lead guitar work of rock and roll.
“Gifts of the Earth”, is the album’s last and clearest crossover track. It is also Deafheaven’s most iconoclastic and one of their catchiest. The song opens with quickly strummed, clean guitars. Clarke begins to scream over what sounds like a deeper, brighter, and tighter Sonic Youth song. The drums, minimalist this time, thread the link between the disparate vocals and guitars. Even influences of goth bleed through on this track. Spectral, deep voices appear behind the screams, suggesting Type O Negative and Tiamat—bands that popularized the doom metal subgenre. A conventional rock beat builds halfway through as screaming and distorted guitars bring the song back to metal. The song and the album end with acoustic guitar strumming and piano plunking, a luxury that Deafheaven’s most loudly metal album can take.
Reviews of Deafheaven’s albums, when not repeating clichés, tend to focus on everything but their music: front-man George Clarke’s preppy good looks (as opposed to the unwashed corpse look most metal bands go for), the color of the album color (Sunbather was pink, while New Bermuda is the much more acceptable dark blue and black), and if the band members might actually be hipsters (a Vice video interview with the band in San Francisco aroused suspicion).
Deafheaven’s music challenges conventional rock and pop reviews because it is more like Western concert music than rock and roll. I don’t want to exaggerate here, since Deafheaven is a not a string quartet, but the different sections function like movements, and the albums as larger, unified compositions. While there are lyrics, screamed over each track by Clarke, they are impossible to discern. And since I don’t own any of Deafheaven’s physical albums, I have never read the liner notes. The screamed vocals function as another instrument, adding a non-tonal element to the music. Sometimes they follow the melody, sometimes the drum rhythms. They highlight for the listener the peaks and valleys of Deafheaven’s songs, which tend to be eight to ten minutes long or more.
Deafheaven, despite their eclecticism and physical appearance (and the countless articles dedicated to the question of whether the band is “metal enough”), is very clearly playing something different from most rock and metal. They operate, like other bands thought of as playing “epic” music, on a different scale of aspirations. They work towards not just creating a musical atmosphere, but towards creating a distinct musical universe. The indescribable thing, the unnamable quality that makes Sunbather and New Bermuda great albums is that it is music that creates its audience. Deafheaven is not playing for fans of a specific genre or fans of a similar band. Deafheaven’s makes its own musical constituency, going beyond the divisions that separate people committed to extremely different kinds of music. And in this sense, the music is transcendent—transcending genre, technical limitations, and our own notions of the limits of what is possible.