It’s not really a coincidence that the two genres of music I’ve listened to most over the years are black metal and post-rock. Something about tremolo guitar very consistently inspires me, and these are the two styles that most frequently and effectively utilize it. But post-rock is one of the most diverse styles of music on the market, and if it employs techniques found in black metal to capture its most intense moments, its other reaches are inexhaustible. It’s characterized more by the effect it produces in the listener than by the means it employs towards this end, and tremolo guitar just happens to be the best–certainly not the only–technique suited for it. The effect it produces is, you might say, a general sense of awe.
When we speak of post-black metal we’re suggesting a branching out from something that is much more locked in place. Technically black metal means tremolo guitar and blast beats, plain and simple. Thematically it goes a bit beyond post-rock, exploring and reveling in a very wide array of human emotions which, to conform to a cultural misconception, might be generally described as negative. Sometimes a post-black metal tag suggests bands that break out from tremolo and blast beats but stick to the same “negative” themes, as in say, Agalloch. Sometimes a post-black metal tag suggests something more like “progressive black metal” which finds creative new ways to employ blast beats and tremolo picking, like Ihsahn or Krallice.
Obviously musical classifications are dubious, sometimes illogical, and only really practical as a shorthand for “you might like this band if you like x”. But with a great deal of discretion they may also be employed to track the general evolution of music–the emergence of new methods and themes, the passive and active influences of any of these upon another, etc–and to predict where it is headed next.
Deafheaven are a brand new band out of San Francisco. They haven’t been releasing demo tapes unnoticed for a decade like a lot of “new” bands; they only just formed in 2010, and Roads to Judah is their debut album. It was the logical next album for me to review, in a sense. I love Krallice, I was told if you like Krallice check out Liturgy, Liturgy’s popularity lead me to reconsider Wolves in the Throne Room, and a broader consideration for “popular” black metal meant the next band to listen to was Deafheaven. (I would imagine I’ll be completing this path by checking out Ash Borer some time next week.)
Now, stylistically none of these four bands have very much in common. Furthermore, I am standing by my opinion that Wolves in the Throne Room are overrated, mediocre, and generic. But Krallice, Liturgy, and Deafheaven all deserve acute attention. Each, in very different ways, is completely redefining black metal. Krallice are doing so by pretty much perfecting everything I’ve ever loved about the style. Liturgy are doing so by embracing a subtle theme within it. Deafheaven, the band I am exploring now, are something of a grand amalgamation of pre-existing genres of music which have often shaken hands but never before so fully embraced each other. As regards my opening observations, they could just as easily be described as “blackened post-rock” as “post-black metal.”
I think the significance of this has been obscured by people calling them shoegaze black metal. Yes, one of their guitarists, Nick Bassett, was in a shoegaze band prior to Deafheaven (Whirr), but you can’t honestly tell me you hear it in this music. Post-rock is greatly in debt to shoegaze in a lot of ways, but it’s not the same thing, and you can’t tell me this sounds more like The Jesus and Mary Chain than Mono. Not that shoegaze black metal isn’t itself a creative new genre, the fact that Alcest already did it (though Neige denies any direct influence) and a lot of bands copies him drastically downplays its significance. But calling Deafheaven shoegaze is like calling it classic rock, because, you know, somewhere down the line The Who influenced metal. No, this is an amalgamation of post-rock and black metal. That is why it’s on the cutting edge. That is why there’s no obvious term with which to describe it.
I’m not sure exactly what all to take from it. Violet doesn’t inspire me in the way that a lot of black metal does, but that’s not to say it falls short. I almost want to say I’d have to see them live to fully appreciate them. I mean, very few post-rock bands deliver on their studio albums. With the exceptions of Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed! You Black Emperor I almost always have to see a post-rock band in concert to appreciate them, and even then no matter how much they blow me away I don’t necessarily enjoy their albums. I get the same vibe from the four opening minutes of Violet that I get from bands like Mono and This Will Destroy You–a pleasant bore through my stereo and a total mindfuck live. You have to feel this sort of music encompassing you and see the musicians creating it to fully take it in.
The second track, Language Games, is much more accessible and immediately appealing. What’s more, it progresses into something which feels an awful lot like screamo to me, most notably in the emotionally tortured screams laid over a simple undistorted melody at 3:50 and the drum roll that follows. I wouldn’t be the first to describe Deafheaven as a screamo black metal crossover, and they are, after all, on Converge frontman Jacob Bannon’s record label, Deathwish Inc. Am I then to call this blackened post-screamo? That’s fucking stupid. I think what you can really take from Deafheaven is something a little more inspiring. Like Liturgy, it is a grand realization of hidden trends growing within music in general, and as such it fits no “genre” tags at all until more bands come along that sound like it.
Whatever you want to call Liturgy’s sound, I’ve been pointing out signs of it for a while now, here in an Ulver song, there in an Alcest song, and many other places besides. As regards Deafheaven, black metal and post-rock have always shared a bit in common, and I would argue that screamo is no foreigner either. It’s a word I’ve been hesitantly coughing up to describe more and more black metal recently. Ars Poetica by Drudkh bewildered me with its likeness to Envy, I explicitly noted a post-rock/screamo vibe at the end of The Puritan’s Hand by Primordial, and I pointed out similarities in Altar of Plagues as well, to name a few. Deafheaven took up a growing theme and ran with it.
Deafheaven are definitely at the top of my bands to see live list, and Roads to Judah is an exceptional album, but it’s kind of a downer in so far as none of the tracks deeply move me. I can get into the vibe but I can’t latch on to any particular moment. It’s significance for me is more in what it accomplishes as the most pronounced and maintained example of a combination of stylistic crossovers long in the making.
But let’s end this on a cautionary note. To suggest black metal broke out of its shell in 2011 would be ridiculous. If I turn to Sagas by Equilibrium in 2008, Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor by Peste Noire in 2009, Luna by Boris in that same year (the Chapter Ahead Being Fake split with Torche), or Blut aus Nord right now, I can find plenty of examples of older bands doing much more progressive (and impressive) things with black metal than what you’re hearing on Roads to Judah. Deafheaven (and Liturgy for that matter) feel pretty immature when competing in the big leagues. The uniqueness of these bands arises from their willingness to shout out something previously only whispered, not from their having perfected anything. (Mind you I am not suggesting they sound remotely similar.)
This act of shouting is only one of many features which have given rise to a lot of derision. With Deafheaven boldy embracing screamo, Liturgy sounding like the Neutral Milk Hotel of black metal, and both bands dressing like trendy assholes, it’s no wonder “hipster” denunciations are flying right and left. “Emo” and “black metal” go together like two gay cowboys at a Texas Republican convention. But really, the more we admit that black metal has always been a little emo the more we detract from the power of subtlety, and there’s some legitimate concern that their appearance is more likely to catch on than their performance. Liturgy and Deafheaven are both great, and some really shitty bands are going to follow in their wake. But it was there all along. This was all bound to happen.