Black Metal, Golden State

Deafheaven craft a soundtrack for California’s techno-capitalist dystopia

The sun hits different on the West Coast. Maybe it’s the relative lack of humidity in the air or the elevation; the sun just feels crisper, brighter, more intense than it does back east. I’m always reminded of this fact when looking at the peach-to-yellow gradient on the cover of Sunbather, the second album by California black metal band Deafheaven. “The color scheme is what it looks like when you’re laying in the park and your eyes are closed and you’re looking at the sun,” the band’s vocalist, George Clarke, told Pitchfork in 2013.

If you happen to be in Deafheaven’s hometown of San Francisco, you’ll find few better places to lay in the sun with your eyes closed than Mission Dolores Park. The park sits at the bottom of a hill on the western edge of the Mission, which is often referred to as the sunniest neighborhood in a city of micro-climates. Tall palm trees ring the edges of the park, encircling the open grassy spaces where picnic blankets are arranged edge-to-edge daily. Dolores Park has become one of San Francisco’s great meeting places—as many as 10,000 people congregate there on sunny days—and there’s an egalitarian feeling to the space that’s increasingly rare in America’s most expensive city. On any given day, you can see people from all backgrounds and walks of life sharing the space, not just the wealthy, predominantly white tech employees who increasingly dominate the surrounding neighborhood (though it was once 65% Latinx, as of 2010, the Mission is majority white). Dolores Park also feels a bit lawless in the best way: despite the fact that there’s a police station just three blocks away, park goers openly drink from beer cans and pass joints in the sunshine (though marijuana is legal in California, smoking it in public is not), adhering only to a social principle that governs many public spaces on the west coast: do your thing, just so long as you don’t bother anyone else. If you’re visiting San Francisco from a more buttoned-up place like New York City, Dolores Park can seem like an almost utopian communal space.

That said, few places in San Francisco have been left untouched by the wave of Silicon Valley money that has washed over the city during the last two decades and Dolores Park is no exception. Securing a space for your blanket in Dolores Park has always been competitive but free: first-come, first-served. That briefly changed in 2016, when the city launched a pilot program allowing people to reserve a section of the park in advance. Reservations required a $200 deposit, as well as a fee of as much as $260. “This park has become a techie playground…with [Mark] Zuckerberg’s house looming above us,” a man who has been frequenting the park since the ‘70s, told the Guardian, when asked about the new reservation policy. 

Modern black metal, the genre of music that Deafheaven is most closely associated with, originated in the boreal forests of Norway and Sweden. Black metal is heavy, richly-textured and unflinchingly dark—the sort of music you might associate with long winters, dark days and glaciated mountain ranges. While black metal drummers and lead guitarists often play at the manic tempos associated with other metal sub-genres, the rhythm guitars and vocals tend to move at much slower speeds. It’s music that’s more concerned with creating an atmosphere of foreboding than pummeling the listener with aggressive sounds. Historically, the culture surrounding black metal has been insular, even antisocial. Many facets of the music and scene—lyrics focused on satanism, lo-fi production, gory imagery—seem intended to repel outsiders. As Paola Ferrero writes in the collection Unpopular Culture,“The imagery was harsh and obscure: everything, from the convoluted and almost unintelligible band logos to the menacing stage names and the use of corpse-paint, had to suggest an image of inaccessibility and mystery.” As a result, black metal has been a largely underground phenomena for most of its existence, even as a number of black metal bands have found wider success by venturing outside of the genre’s aesthetic borders.

Deafheaven began their career as a black metal band of sorts but in the arc of their discography, the genre seems more like a jumping off point. The band took the core elements of black metal—layers of distorted guitars, screeched vocals, acrobatic drum fills—and fused them with song structures and sounds borrowed from other genres. In any given Deafheaven song, you’ll find the languid pacing and crescendo-chasing of post-rock, the gauzy textures of shoegaze and the sort of immaculate guitar work that became a hallmark of British guitar pop. Deafheaven songs tend to operate in movements: heavy parts, pretty parts and the ambient sections that often serve as bridges between the two.

Not only do Deafheaven not sound like a typical black metal band, they also don’t look like one. From the time they first started playing shows, they eschewed long hair and “corpse paint”—the black and white face paint worn by members of more traditional black metal acts—for street clothes and short, slicked-back hair. The band’s guitarist and principal songwriter, Kerry McCoy, often appeared on stage in vintage Smiths and Oasis T-shirts—pop bands that he publicly idolized. Though they began in 2010 as a duo of Clarke and McCoy, the band quickly expanded to a five-piece and since 2013, has counted people of color among its members. Sadly, this is yet another way in which Deafheaven stand out from a scene that is lacking in diversity at best and at worst, in a state of denial about its linkages to white supremacist ideology. “White supremacists have long seen extreme music scenes — from hardcore to industrial to neofolk to, yes, black metal — as fertile recruiting grounds,” Kim Kelly wrote in an Outline piece titled, “Black Metal Has a Real Nazi Problem”. 

Needless to say, Deafheaven failed the black metal purity test spectacularly. While they weren’t the first band to mix black metal with elements from other genres, the runaway success of their second album, Sunbather, made them an easy target. A 2014 Vice piece titled “Why Are Black Metal Fans Such Elitist Assholes?” opens with a vignette of two Brooklyn bartenders deriding Deafheaven as “hipster metal,” a comment that echoed much of the discourse around Deafheaven in metal communities online. If you go back to interviews from around the time of Sunbather’s release, you’ll see the band fielding questions about their appearance and the backlash to their music as often as questions about the music itself. On the red carpet for the Revolver Golden Gods awards in 2014 (where they were nominated for best new artist), a reporter asked Clarke and McCoy to respond to allegations that they are not a ‘real’ metal band. They both look utterly exhausted by the question and all Clarke can muster in the form of a response is, “Yeah...I just simply don’t pay that much attention to it”.

I first saw Deafheaven play live on the fourth of July, 2013 at the now shuttered Brooklyn venue 285 Kent. That night, a friend and I watched fireworks erupt over the East River from a rooftop in Greenpoint before we biked down to the venue to watch the band’s set. They came on late—sometime around 1am, if I remember correctly—and prior to the show, I had only listened to Sunbather once. I remember liking, if not loving the record. That changed as soon as I saw the band perform.

Something clicked into place as I watched Deafheaven play at a loud volume in a hot, grubby warehouse space streaked with tangles of graffiti. As the band roared through their set, the music started lighting up the pleasure centers in my brain like a switchboard. I could hear the release I had sought in hardcore music in my teens, the crescendos I had found so moving in post-rock acts like Sigur Rós and the chiming guitar figures I loved in the work of the Smiths. Deafheaven had taken many of the qualities I loved about disparate rock sub-genres and synthesized them into something that felt original and vital. Here were huge, soaring rock songs that were equal parts dark and pretty, played by a band that seemed to hold nothing back. McCoy could make his guitar roar like a jet turbine but then seconds later, trace out an arpeggio in gorgeous, clean tones. High-pitched black metal vocals are often described as “throat-shredding” but that didn’t feel like a sufficient descriptor for Clarke’s voice, which seemed to originate somewhere deep within his chest cavity. Watching the band play, I felt an instinctive need to move my body and a magnetic pull toward the mosh pit at the front of the crowd. My hardcore days were largely behind me but for the first time in a decade, I wanted to feel myself collide with other people having the same experience.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that Deafheaven had produced something noteworthy in Sunbather. Metacritic, the critical reviews aggregator, lists Sunbather as the “best reviewed major album of 2013,” outranking more talked-about albums like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and My Bloody Valentine’s m b v. This also marked the first time a metal album had occupied that spot since the site began aggregating review scores. The album cover and a screenshot of a phone playing “Dream House” were also used in Apple’s marketing materials for the iPhone 5C, something that would have been unthinkable for the work of nearly any other black metal act. More than the music or the haircuts, it might be the band’s crossover success that truly earned them ire from certain corners of the metal community. “[C]ommenters pointed to a much more interesting issue concerning Deafheaven’s polarizing music,” Ferrero writes of the comment sections below articles about the band, “[T]he relationship between the band’s overwhelming popularity on indie music webzines and the historical, entrenched, even sought for ‘unpopularity’ of [black metal].” In a sense, Deafheaven may have unwittingly played an outsized role in dragging black metal from out of the shadows and into the sunlight.

Music tends to reflect the environments that its makers inhabit; we can see this clearly in the cold, foreboding music made by second-wave black metal acts from Scandinavia. Deafheaven, however, didn’t write their music while looking out over glaciers and fjords—the band’s earliest songs were sketched out in a likely illegal 14-person apartment in the Mission, ground zero for San Francisco’s continuing gentrification. As two white guys who had newly moved to the city, you might fairly point out that Clarke and McCoy fit the profile of gentrifiers. But their view of the city was markedly different from that of most well-off tech employees. Both men hail from the unglamorous town of Modesto, which lies nearly 100 miles east of San Francisco; Clarke managed to hitchhike his way to the city and McCoy soon joined him, with only $30 worth of food stamps to his name. After a stint at a call-center, the pair eventually ended up working at a Whole Foods, where they would have become intimately familiar with the tastes of the city’s moneyed class while working for an hourly wage. “I would get off work and walk around at nighttime—working a shitty job all day, getting off at 11 o’clock—only to look up at these high-rise apartments,” Clarke told PopMatters in 2013. “The lights are still on, and you can see inside that everything’s meticulous, beautiful, and expensive.” Despite the wall of distorted guitars we hear in all of their work, the songs that comprise the band’s original demo were written on an acoustic guitar, since that’s all McCoy owned at the time—he had to borrow an electric guitar from the studio where they recorded the songs for $500. It took the pair eight months to pay back that fee.

Deafheaven’s music hits your eardrums in swells and surges and in this sound, you might hear the tectonic forces that have reshaped the modern landscape of San Francisco: the gold rush, earthquakes, waves of immigration and more recently, venture capital money. In the mid-’90s, the median cost of a house in San Francisco was roughly $300,000; that figure now sits at $1.4 million. The story of how the city became so expensive is complicated and hinges on things like zoning, permitting and a failure to build housing to keep pace with demand. But there’s no denying that stock payouts from successful tech companies flooded a housing market already in crisis with newly-minted millionaires, while attracting even more newcomers seeking fortune. A recent study estimates that a person renting an apartment in San Francisco needs to earn north of $164,000 to live “comfortably”; for someone hoping to own a house, that number jumps to more than $230,000. Of course, plenty of people live in and around San Francisco who don’t make anywhere near that amount. The city estimates that 10 percent of its residents exist below what it considers the “poverty line”. That means that by the city’s own measures, almost 90,000 people are eking out a living on the margins of a city whose housing is priced for millionaires.

Much like the plentiful sunshine and rich soil shapes California’s wines, class struggle is an undercurrent that animates much of Deafheaven’s work. Many of Sunbather’s lyrics focus on inequality but not in the dry, facts-and-figures sense. Rather, Clarke’s lyrics give the listener a window into the feeling of being poor and gazing enviously at the rich. What it feels like to barely scrape together an existence while surrounded by almost unimaginable wealth. Take, for example, these lyrics from the title track, “Sunbather”:

Held my breath and drove through a maze of wealthy homes

I watched how green the trees were

I watched the steep walkways and the white fences

I gripped the wheel

I sweated against the leather

I watched the dogs twist through the wealthy garden

I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs

I gazed into reflective eyes

I cried against an ocean of light

At the start of the verse, Clarke’s eyes hungrily scan the material signifiers of wealth: mansions, picket fences, carefully groomed gardens. But by the end of the verse, his focus shifts. He’s looking past the superficial trappings of prosperity and understanding what profound wealth can really buy: leisure. A life where you no longer have to sell your time and energy to the highest bidder just to survive. “It can be peaceful, being that obscenely wealthy; no common, day-to-day worries, things like that,” Clarke told PopMatters in 2013. “At least, that’s what it can look like from the outside—my lyrics are all about my outside perspective looking in.”

Sunbather is equally adept at showing us the flip side of the coin: what life is like in the underbelly of the techno-capitalist’s playground. On an album with no shortage of dark moments, the ambient track “Windows” feels downright bleak. Here, over a looping drone, we hear a field recording of McCoy purchasing opiates on the streets of San Francisco. The dealer in the recording haggles with McCoy—he wants to unload all of his product and get off the street—and McCoy repeatedly pushes back by evoking his own poverty. “I’ve got sixty bucks, that’s it, that’s all I have, that’s the last of my money”. There’s an audible desperation on both sides of the deal. In the background, you can hear MUNI buses unloading their passengers and the recording is soon overtaken by the sound of a street preacher warning of the dangers of hell through a megaphone. “Where the fire is never quenched and where the worm dieth is a place called Hell, and Hell is real,” he warns.

There's no denying that San Francisco is a beautiful city; there's also no denying that it can be a very ugly place. I've stood at the top of Nob Hill and looked down at Chinatown unfurling like a carpet under my feet, the Bay glittering blue just past the Embarcadero. I've also watched people injecting drugs into each other's necks on Market street in broad daylight. To be fair, San Francisco, like many port cities, has always been a place of extremes. But if the recent infusion of money has underscored anything in the city, it's how great the distance is between the haves and the have-nots. 

Deafheaven manage to capture these extremes—darkness and light, hope and suffering—better than any band to emerge from San Francisco in the last decade. They have become quite successful as a result. “I want to do a big tour, and I want to play in front of huge crowds. I want to tour the world, and I want to put out more records,” Clarke told PopMatters in 2013, when asked about his aspirations. In the years since, Deafheaven have checked off all of those boxes and then some, becoming reliable critical darlings who can sell out large rooms and play major festivals like Coachella. Their fanbase includes plenty of metal fans but also extends to listeners of punk, emo and mainstream indie rock. 

Their latest album, Infinite Granite, seems to cast off any allegiance to black metal completely. Much of the sturm und drang of the band’s early work has washed away, leaving in its place something that bears a closer resemblance to guitar pop than metal. Instead of screaming, Clarke mostly sings in a rich, sonorous voice. McCoy weaves together constellations of guitar notes in elegant, clean hues. The production is crystalline and reverberant—you could call it stadium-ready. Deafheaven still have the finely-honed tools of a black metal band at their disposal, they just use them more judiciously. The double-bass drum hits at the climax of “Lament for Wasps,” the lead soloing at the close of “The Gnashing” and Clarke’s curdled screams on “Mombasa” all serve as reminders of the band’s power and restraint.

Infinite Granite can initially feel like a hard left turn for Deafheaven but spend enough time with it and it will start to feel familiar. The album tweaks the ratios of ingredients but ultimately provides the same thrills as the band’s previous work. There’s still plenty of drama built into the structure of these songs and the band remain masters of tension and release, even as they dial down the intensity. In hindsight, they’ve been inching toward something like this for a while now. Their previous album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, flirted with a dark pop sound on standout tracks like “Night People'' and “Worthless Animal”—two songs that would feel right at home on Infinite Granite.

Deafheaven’s members, like many one-time residents of San Francisco, have long since fled the city in search of some breathing room (the Los Angeles Times describes San Francisco as experiencing “a unique and dramatic exodus”). Both Clarke and McCoy now reside separately in Los Angeles; they no longer share a cramped apartment with their bass player. If the music they now make is less violent, you could chalk it up to maturity, or to the degree of confidence they feel in challenging their audience. Or maybe the lack of venom comes from no longer living in a city that has long since become the canary in American capitalism’s coal mine.