Monday, December 23, 2013
Confronting Honesty: On Deafheaven
December is a tough month for me as a music fan. Given the plethora of year-end lists that emerge at this time of year, it's often difficult not to feel as though I've failed in my efforts to discover new music.
That said, if you can work through those feelings, it's a pretty awesome (and economical) opportunity to catch up on things in short order.
Complicating matters, this is also a time when music critics become even uglier than usual. As certain bands pull away from the pack, there is an immediate backlash against them -- a backlash that is often petty and seemingly motivated by the critic's personal insecurities. (If that sounds mean, than you probably have never met a music critic -- or a critic of any kind, really).
This year, no metal band is more firmly trapped in this tug-of-war than San Francisco's Deafheaven.
The Objective: Being Objective
I'll be honest: I didn't hear about Deafheaven until this past fall. Maybe I should have. I dunno. (The fact that I've heard of them at all makes me feel like I've done at least one thing right this year...)
Among the very first things I heard about the band was that they were considered by many to be "metal for people who don't like metal."
At root, everyone knows that this is an incredibly elitist statement. In fact, it actually made me want to give the band a fair shake. So, I did something I rarely do anymore: I bought Sunbather, sight unseen. Just like the old days. And it felt good - just like it used to.
That's not to say that I didn't walk into the experience with my own set of prejudices. Quite the opposite.
The hipster fascination with metal that's emerged these past ten years irks me deeply, and I struggle with it quite a bit; I can't sit here and honestly tell you that I think every single 29 year old in East Austin (or Silverlake or Williamsburg or Wicker Park) who owns a Slayer tee is just a poseur. Some - if not most - of them have to possess a true love of metal.
Yet, there are days when I feel 100 percent certain that this weird hipster fascination with black metal is little more than the result of a bunch of music nerds who got so bent out of shape over "alternative punk rock" going mainstream that they went out and deliberately tried to find the least accessible music possible, so that they could still feel cool and different and flaccidly subversive.
God knows we've all been there. Remember that first time you heard your "yeah-bro!" coworkers talking about Block Party or the Arctic Monkeys or whoever?
It sucked. Made you want to take up free jazz, didn't it?
So, anyway, I knew it was going to be tough to be impartial with this record. I was incredibly quick to dismiss Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room as "hipster metal" after very quick listens, and that probably didn't bode well for Deafheaven.
...And neither did the first several minutes of Sunbather. In fact, I probably wasn't even 30 seconds into the album before I found myself saying it out loud:
"This isn't a fucking metal album."
Trailblazers or Trend-chasers?
To the contrary, this sounded like just one more record in a firmly-entrenched trend of bands that using ambient soundscapes as a technique for enhancing their arrangements.
That's not to say that it sounds bad. Quite the opposite: there are bands that I like a great deal who use this same technique in different ways: the Drop Electric and even Sigur Ros come to mind.
But within the context of metal, it sits poorly. There is a strong sense that without the drums and the screeching vocals, none of the music would be terribly identifiable as metal. Maybe that shouldn't be a problem for me, but it is. Because when the sound of the music is so - forgive the term - mainstream, the metal vocals begin to sound like a gimmick.
That's undoubtedly an unfair accusation. But it comes from an honest place: these songs may be beautiful, tragic and tortured, but they provide little or none of the visceral sensory satisfaction that I seek in metal.
Maybe I'm simple that way. But I kind of doubt it.
On the Bright Side....
To be completely fair, there are moments on the album that absolutely work - particularly in the second half of the record. When "Vertigo" hits fifth gear, it is simply tremendous. Ditto for "The Pecan Tree", which is the album's masterwork.
To that end, its a real blessing to have Sunbather end on such a strong note. It leaves an impression that is somehow powerful enough to forgive the unsatisfying shoegaze of the album's first half.
In fact, I can't even pretend not to love the final 25 minutes of Sunbather. When it gels, it represents a tremendous meeting between vision and execution in a way that utilizes the soundscaping majesty of the first half of the record, without sacrificing its metal underpinnings. And those moments are incredibly satisfying.
In Conclusion: An Undisciplined Sidebar Thought That Just Came to Me...
I have a feeling that it could be a long time before I make my peace with Sunbather as a whole entity. In fact, if I were a better writer, I'd make a big comparison between Sunbather and Kanye's Yeezus.
They're both incendiarily polarizing to critics. They both seem intentionally confrontational to the listener. They both strike me as an example of the vision of the art being significantly greater than its execution. And they both seem to be records that demand a few weeks' worth of listens in order to make a fully-formed opinion.
But I'm not a better writer. And I don't give a fuck about Kanye. And I have limited time these days. So, I'll be spending these next few weeks trying to get to know Sunbather.
To tell you the truth, it feels nice to embrace such a challenging record. I'm finding myself almost grateful.