Deafheaven are a difficult band to pin down. Visually, they look like they should be playing Joy Division or Smiths covers. Sonically, they combine lacerating black metal with swaths of lilting, shoegaze-esque guitar work. They’re signed to Deathwish Inc, a label that’s known almost exclusively for putting out hardcore records. They hail from San Francisco, a city not exactly known as a hotbed for black metal (with the notable exceptions of Weakling and Ludicra, of course). Sound confusing? Don’t worry, the sounds are what’s important here, and once you push past all the contradictions, you’ll find that Deafheaven is creating some seriously compelling (albeit tough to categorize) aggressive music with their debut album, Roads to Judah.
Scratching the surface, you can trace Deafheaven’s lineage back to the aforementioned Weakling, just as you can with several other upstart US quasi-black metal acts, namely Krallice, and unfortunately, Liturgy. But as far as I can tell, this is the only parallel you’ll find between Deafheaven and the NYC black metal practitioners. You see, unlike Krallice or Liturgy, Deafheaven write songs that actively engage the listener and draw you into their sonic realm. The songs on Roads to Judah are not pretentious museum pieces or college theses masquerading as black metal, no, this is genuinely emotional music that commands your attention. It’s dynamic, painstakingly crafted music, and black metal is just the jumping-off point; even the most violent portions of Roads to Judah possess an ethereal, shimmering quality that’s about a million miles away from the unrelenting grimness of traditional BM. There are just as many passages on this album that sound like they could’ve been lifted directly from Loveless as there are moments that invoke Dead as Dreams. I realize that I’ve been highly critical of bands combining black metal and shoegaze in the past, but this is because so few bands have been able to do so in a way that I find compelling. Deafheaven is one of those few.
But why Deafheaven? The answer is simple. Good ideas. Deafheaven has lots of them, enough to justify stretching songs out past the nine minute mark without ever getting tedious. They do this by letting up on the gas and allowing the corrosive black metal elements to recede so that the aforementioned shoegaze and even some rock and post hardcore influences can take the driver’s seat. The transitions are fluid and a spacious production scheme allows the songs to open up and breathe. I’ve also heard the term “screamo” being thrown around in discussions of this band, but since I don’t know what the hell screamo is, I’m completely unqualified to comment. Whatever exotic ingredients Deafheaven are bringing to the table and throwing into the stew-pot along with black metal, they’re doing it right, and doing it better than just about any other band they’re currently being mentioned in the same breath as.
Is it “true” black metal? Does it matter? When the music is this absorbing, things like genres and labels are secondary, an attempt to put things in neat, clean little boxes that results in utter frustration every time a band as confounding as Deafheaven comes down the pipeline. As I noted at the beginning of this review, the music found on Roads to Judah is difficult to categorize, and I have a feeling the members of Deafheaven wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s an exhilarating and adventurous listen, but it’s also soothing and caustic and beautiful and fucking ugly. You simply cannot ask for much more than that from a band’s debut.