In many ways, black metal is music's most insular genre. Deafening shrieks, dissonant guitar squalls, blast-beat drumming and Satanic imagery all add up to an atmosphere of contempt for outsiders plus antagonism toward those who try to challenge orthodoxy. So how the hell did a black metal band like Deafheaven, which came out of the Bay Area scene that birthed everyone from Blue Cheer to Metallica and Faith No More to Sleep, end up becoming favorites of the indie rock establishment?
While 2011 debut LP Roads to Judah flashed glimpses of the boundary-pushing band Deafheaven would become, it was 2013's Sunbather that fully realized their unique blend of metal, hardcore, shoegaze and knotty post-rock. Somehow, New Bermuda, released last month on multi-faceted label Anti- Records, is even better, sliding effortlessly in five songs that average nine minutes in length through influences as disparate as Slayer, Low, Wilco, Red House Painters and the Cure. And no, that's not just journalistic cherry-picking.
"That's absolutely on point," guitarist Shiv Mehra says. "Every single one of those comparisons is accurate because we went into the making of New Bermuda listening to all of those bands and wanting to bring that feel to the record. Sunbather was more shoegaze mixed with black metal, and this time around we wanted to branch out."
Mehra says New Bermuda even contains some pop inflections, although you'd have to wade through six minutes of majestic crunch on "Luna" and "Come Back" to get to those more tender moments. "Baby Blue" will appeal to fans of textured instrumental rock a la Explosions in the Sky, while "Gifts for the Earth" sprints along on a New Wave-inspired bounce before breaking into a Beatles-esque coda.
Although lead singer George Clarke still shreds his vocal cords to within an inch of their life throughout the album, everything on New Bermuda packs a level of cinematic clarity unheard in past Deafheaven material. And like the best movie soundtrack, this is music that will wipe away your pre-existing feelings and replace them with epic sweeps of emotion. "Bringing out those clearer tones definitely helped," Mehra says. "The recording is not so washed out – it lands with a more solid impact."
Sure, Clarke's words are indiscernible without the lyric sheet. But they're also weighted with more personal emotion than anything in the black metal pantheon. Where Sunbather dealt with his impoverished upbringing, his struggles with teenage lust and his resistance to wealth and conformity, New Bermuda finds Clarke examining his newfound comfort as a relatively well-off musician now living in Los Angeles.
"This record is more based on George's woes of adulthood," Mehra says. "Coping with finally growing up and having to deal with life's real circumstances. But that reflects on all of us. We were short on time and under some pressure to make New Bermuda, so it was a lot more conducive to write it together as a full five-piece band because we've been touring together for so long. It definitely came out to be more representative of the whole."
Anyone who's sat down and listened to New Bermuda all the way through will appreciate the fact that Deafheaven is performing it all the way through on its current tour. And although Mehra says that "a lot more regular people who read Pitchfork" are turning up for the band's shows, things actually haven't changed that much. "We're playing a lot bigger venues now, but our performance style hasn't changed too much for the bigger stage. Maybe George has become more connected to the crowd. But the crowds have remained kind of the same since the origin of the band."
In certain circles, the debate over Deafheaven's authenticity continues to rage. Can a band being interviewed by NPR and VH1 still be considered black metal? But those internecine battles don't seem to matter to these unflappable young men. "We're on tour with [Swedish death metal band] Tribulation, so we still fit in," Mehra says. "Yes, there are people out there who don't listen to us anymore, but that's their thing. We still have all our friends in the same circle."