In Which I Try to Explain Why the We’re Having the Wrong Conversation about Deafheaven

On the surface, Deafheaven spawns all sorts of conversation about genre, true black metal, the creeping influence of indie rock on metal, and how popularity affects art. I could care less at this point. Deciding whether you like their recent album based on any of these points is ridiculous when there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why they aren’t very good at what they do.

I was listening to New Bermuda with the intent of doing a review of it this week when it became clear to me why I didn’t like what I was listening to. Unfortunately, this clarity is going to be very difficult to articulate. It has to do with something that you’d probably struggle with constantly if being trained as a classical musician. It has to do with the fine line between being expressive enough to engage a listener and over-expressing to the point of alienating a listener.

This distinction exists in all art forms, and I think it is easier to explain with poetry. Think of some angsty high school kid trying to express his feelings in poetry. It’s probably blatantly obvious and filled with all sorts of cliche metaphors. It is so over-the-top that it makes you cringe to read. But it was probably also heartfelt, sincere, and cathartic for the writer. It’s just that the writer hasn’t realized that getting a reader to feel what they feel is separate from spewing everything onto a page.

To give the most extreme example: a sad person can’t stand on a stage and cry and expect the audience to get anything out of that. Expressing emotion in a way that someone else can immerse themselves in is much more about restraint than expression. All instrumentalists I know of go through this phase. They get good enough at their instruments that they can finally start expressing in music. What comes out sounds like Celine Dion. Their teachers let this go for a while, but at some point they have to be told the truth: what you’re doing is embarrassing. You have to tone it down. Great music is about subtlety.

The same goes for composing. Early on you catch on to some things you think express something. What you don’t realize is that everyone goes through a phase where they find those same chords or hooks. Once you move on to a more mature phase of composing, you hear those same cliche ideas and cringe like at that terrible poetry. It’s too obvious and too overwrought which pulls the listener out instead of in. What makes this a strange phenomenon is that the player can play it with sincerity and think that since they are “feeling” the music, the listener is too. It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand I think.

Here’s another example that happens all over big budget Hollywood movies. A dad who is kind of a nice guy, so you’re rooting for him, but he’s struggling to make ends meet so has a ton on his mind wakes up and his wife says, “Don’t forget to get the cake for your daughter’s birthday tonight.” And you just know how the next 20 minutes are going to go. He’s going to have a bad day, so it’s not his fault when he forgets, but of course to everyone else it just looks like he’s a bad dad. And by the end of the movie he’s going have done something to more than make up for it. He’ll be dad of the year with epic flowing music and people crying in the audience.

From that one sentence about the cake, everything after has such a cringeworthy level of predictability that you can’t actually believe they popped another one of these pieces of trash out in exactly the same way as the last 100. They used those same cliche tricks, and somehow there were still people there who didn’t see through it and were “moved” by it. They’ll still dish out $10 to go see the same crappy writing do it again. Sure, all the specifics will be different (change dad to “gay uncle” and crappy job to “drug addiction” and cake to “present”), but at a structural level, it is exactly the same.

This brings us to Deafheaven. The reason I think this is the right conversation to have is that the line between good and bad with respect to expression is difficult to find. If you don’t get close enough to the line, you produce flat music with no content. If you accidentally cross the line, no matter how little, it is cringe inducing with its cliche over-expression. This is one of the most difficult parts of making art and worth talking about. This is the reason that changing one word can mean the difference between an excellent poem and a terrible poem.

This is also one of the reasons classic black metal succeeds. It is extreme. It is highly expressive and walks right up to that line. But it also strips away all of the pop music tricks and cliche to do this. The great bands we still listen to managed to not cross this line.

The other way to get next to the line is to use the cliche, but to tone everything else down so much that you don’t cross the line. What Deafheaven does is flawed from the start even at a philosophical or theoretical level. What do you expect when you take the extremeness of black metal and the saccharine cliche of pop and combine them? It doesn’t just nudge you over the line, it pushes you so far past the line it makes you want to slap something.

I know this is going to sound controversial, but I completely understand why people like this. It’s the same reason people would rather go to a Celine Dion concert than the symphony. It’s the same reason that people who don’t cringe when they hear the cake line go to those movies. This makes it hard to talk about this with people who don’t automatically cringe when they hear those moments on New Bermuda. I could point them out, but the people who don’t get it probably won’t benefit from being shown the problem, and those who do get it already understand the problem (even if it is difficult to articulate).

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Catching up Midway 2013, Part 2

I’ll just do a quick double review of two more things I found on best of lists. Since these two things have been extensively reviewed all over the place, I’ll just leave the detailed reviews to other sources. These bands have gotten near universal praise, so I expect to see them on many year end lists as well, but probably not mine …

The first is Deafheaven’s Sunbather. I intentionally avoided this one, because when I saw it reviewed I didn’t read the reviews. I just looked at the title which involved the word “sun” from a California band and the cover is bright pink. I honestly assumed this was some pop album from a bunch of hippies. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Unlike the past many, many albums I liked which were “growers” (I didn’t like them at first and through time I grew to understand the complexities and start to really love what was happening), this album instantly connected with me. Wow. I don’t remember the last time I had an emotional response on the first listen. Some people are calling this post-black metal, but I wouldn’t go that far. I’d call it heavy shoegaze. Remember that term? Yeah.

I think the emotional response mostly comes from an appeal to a certain demographic. This album will give anyone that grew up with Godspeed You Black Emperor and My Bloody Valentine a nostalgia for the past. It consists of building climaxes out of noisy, distorted layerings. I might even throw in Sigur Ros as an influence in this regard. I’m not sure how a younger generation would react to this. If you’re not already familiar with the musical language it is using, it might take a few more listens.

I was in bliss the first several times I listened to this letting the sound just wash over me. Honestly, it isn’t really that “deep” or “complex,” so I’ve already surpassed the point of really liking it. This is the opposite of a grower for me. Now that the original emotional appeal has worn off, I’m not sure how much replay value this has. Although, I must say that the end of “Please Remember” is probably the saddest thing I’ve heard all year. I’ll come back to that. It hurts so good. That sliding, whiny guitar sound. I want more of that.

Here’s a sample:

The other album is Mouth of the Architect’s Dawning. I’m not really sure how to classify this one. Metalsucks came up with something like progressive post sludge. There’s definitely some really great heavy sludginess going on here. I don’t hear the experimentation so much as “post” whatever, but more as just that. Experimentation. I’d maybe say it is avant-sludge?

This album is really good. When it gets cooking, it really heats up into some chaotic greatness. It’s rare, but I love the vocals. The simultaneous growling/screaming/clean singing is a great effect that really works for what they’re doing. There’s some cool, bizarre melodic material which is a nice change of pace from the other stuff I’ve been listening to that treats melodic lines as non-existent or something that must exist but shouldn’t be dwelled upon.

So like I said, when this album is doing something interesting I love it. It’s great. But there’s lots I’m not too excited about as well, so overall I can’t say it is great. There’s some brief moments of zone out in the first half, but for the most part the first half is really solid. As the album progresses from the middle to the end, I start to lose interest a lot more frequently.

Sludge in general is such a hit or miss genre for me. It is also hard to describe which versions of it interest me and which I find dull. This album definitely has material that will allow me to point to in the future and tell people, “That. That’s what I want my sludge to sound like.” Anyway, the slow bits may still grow on me, so I definitely recommend this one if it sounded interesting from my terrible description.

Here’s a sample: