Some names tell you all you need to know about a band: Slayer. Dee-Lite. Metallica. Pearl Jam, eh, not so much. But Deafheaven? Definitely. Black metal (Deaf) + heaven (shoe gaze) = a slew of critical acclaim and year-end “best of” nods for the band’s 2013 Sunbather, their second LP since forming in 2010.
See also: The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2013
Deafheaven frontman George Clarke, who founded the band in San Francisco with guitarist Kerry McCoy (guitarist Shiv Mehra, drummer Daniel Tracy and bassist Stephen Clark complete the lineup), cut his heavy-rock teeth on Bay Area thrash. “That’s originally how I got into more extreme metal, in 7th grade,” Clarke remembers. “Metallica being the entry level, then Slayer and Vio-lence and Exodus were my gateway.”
In creating the sound that would become Deafheaven, the singer’s vision was strong: “Genre-mixing was definitely a goal starting out. It took a while for us to find our exact sound, which you only get through playing and naturally developing.”
The key to making the music and band genuine, he believes, is the “ability to hear subtle similarities. I can hear a shoegaze riff and think, ‘Well, if you set that up and kept the same chord progression and put distortion over it and put this kind of blast beat on it, that could be a metal part.’ It’s having the know-how to see and feel little things like that.” Still, Clarke acknowledges that “practicing with transitions and making sure you’re fluid” is crucial. “It’s always going a be a risk, because people generally think some things shouldn’t be mixed.”
Those “some people” are neither critics nor fans, both of whom pretty much universally venerate Sunbather and Clarke’s heady if opaque lyrics. (“Destined as the servant to the night where your moon dreams of the dirt and the sharp tongue of your zealous will is only congruent with the salt in your mouth and the approaching eulogy of the world,” he writes in “Vertigo.”) Clarke cites Milan Kundera, Oscar Wilde, Andre Breton and Nabakov as favorite authors, chuckling at his Euro-Romantic bent: “I like pretty language.”
Acknowledging that Sunbather‘s themes may be open-ended, Clarke did a detailed online interview to explain his lyrical intent, feeling that in order to “appreciate the music to its fullest extent,” a backstory from the writer would help listeners connect.
And for those who don’t? “I don’t think we’re going to be hitting major radio waves any time soon,” he says of th ebands four-song records and 12-minute songs. “Our focus is on the ebb and flow and crescendoing, so you need a little time to get that all out. I like to think that’s one of the reasons they like us.”
Lately, “they”–devotees and journalists–have imbued Clarke with confidence”not evinced during Sunbather’s creation, where Deafheaven worried how the album would be accepted. “I’m taken aback and flattered,” Clarke now concludes. “We’re really grateful. But now, with the whole press madness, I keep my head forward and we tour, and when it comes to the next record…I’ll bite my nails then.”
Deafheaven play Friday, February 21 at the Paramount.