San Francisco’s Deafheaven, performing Friday at C2SV Music Festival, has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention this year for their groundbreaking sophomore album Sunbather, an impressive mix of extreme black metal, screamo and post-rock.
With near constant metal riffs, vocal screaming and post-rock arpeggios, the album never sounds cluttered, and somehow, gradually and unnoticed, they shift into something gentle and spacious, and then back again into another complex aggressive section.
Before Sunbather pulled this formula off so fluidly, the band has been combining with these competing elements since they started in 2010, just trying to play all the music they loved and somehow make it work.
“I’ve been listening to aggressive music for as long as I can remember—over a decade now,” says lead vocalist George “We sort of had an idea of what we were trying to accomplish musically, but I think we just went in it a little blind, curious just to see how it would come out. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into it.”
Sunbather wasn’t just a feat of extreme musical complexity, but an emotionally one too, particularly for a metal or hardcore album, where traditionally artists make every song as angry as possible, or wallow in doom for twelve tracks. On Sunbather, within each song—some ten minutes, others just a couple minutes long—Deafheaven express a whole range of emotions.
“There were a lot of records coming out in 2011 and 2012 that really wanted to be dark and brooding,” Clarke says. “I felt like those weren’t an accurate depiction of the human emotional experience. We wanted something that went through emotional movements. We wanted something that really represented the idea of self—one that is not sad all the time, or angry, or happy, but rather a mixture of all those things all the time.”
Deafheaven started as a two-piece, with Kerry McCoy on guitar and Clarke on vocals. They recorded a series of demos together at Atomic Gardens in East Palo Alto with no real point to them, just a way to kill boredom. Though after listening back to what they’d created, they decided to send them off to be reviewed.
“I was looking at certain blogs and I was like, ‘These bands are getting attention. I don’t think we sound too far from this stuff. Maybe people will listen to our demos,’” Clarke says.
Not only did they get positive press, but independent record label Deathwish, Inc read the reviews and contacted the band to see if they’d work with them.
By the time Deafheaven were ready to record their first album, Roads to Judah, Clarke and McKoy had found three more members. While stylistically it is similar to Sunbather, it at times sounds more ambitious than groundbreaking.
“Roads to Judah after a while felt really elementary, but I like the direction we were going in,” George says. “I just thought that the riffing and stuff like that sort of was a little simplistic. Even the production is really thin compared to Sunbather. It sort of lacks a heavy base.”
Over the years that followed, other band members came and went. By the time they were ready to record again, Clarke and McKoy didn’t really have a band, so they went back to being the two-piece and wrote Sunbather together. With just the two of them, they spent long, meticulous hours tooling each section of every song in a way that just wasn’t possible on Roads to Judah.
“It was very thought out—much more than in a jam type situation,” Clarke says. “We were really trying to overcompensate for the fact that we didn’t have five people. Everything had to have lots of details, riffs had to be as fluid as possible. We had to make sure all our transitions worked. It was very piece-by-piece,” Clarke says.
They recorded the album with drummer Daniel Tracy. The result is something that doesn’t sound like completely new territory musically, but it shows a new level of complexity and maturity within metal music, and pushes the boundaries as far as what the standards for aggressive music should be.
“I think the hardest part about songwriting is fluidity, making sure that something is seamless, especially when you are attempting to combine assorted genres,” Clarke says. “I think we did a good job in melding styles together just like one big piece. I remember feeling personally accomplished by the record because we put a lot of time into it.”