Thought I’d begin this new year with some intentional distance from my last pair of updates, the much labored over Best of 2013 features, not because there has been a lack of new releases in the interim (quite the opposite actually, I’ll talk about that next time), but mainly due to the information overload I was experiencing in the final days of last year. I’m a nerd for things like best metal of the year listings, features, and analysis and I spent many, many hours pouring over as many of them as possible. It was all too easy to get get worked up over the usual suspects, such as the “big platform” sites/publications (defined by No Clean Singing as “places with large audiences, most of which cover musical genres well beyond metal”) that issued their own best metal of the year lists —- even more so now that Rolling Stone of all magazines had decided to join in the discussion for the first time in their history.
Not surprisingly, nearly all of them placed indie darlings Deafheaven on the top of their lists. I’ll talk about them in a little bit, but first I want to direct everyone’s attention to what I believe was the singular most important piece of metal writing issued in 2013, written by the always great Adrien Begrand (Decibel, Terrorizer, MSN). The introduction to his finalized Best of 2013 feature puts into words my exact sentiments about the state of metal today —- my own thoughts on the subject being often muddled and subject to wild mood swings (ask my co-workers). It’s a great piece and I urge everyone to take a moment and read over it (check out his year end list as well). I don’t always agree with his takes —- for example he listed Therion’s Les Fleurs du Mal as one of 2012’s worst metal releases while it was my album of the year, but he almost always gives me something challenging to think about.
His overall take in my own crude, ungainly decipher is that innovation within metal has plateaued in terms of musical developments solely derived from internal factors. For example, its difficult to imagine a metal style that is more sonically brutal or extreme than black or death metal in its rawest forms. Adrien argues that the last real innovation in metal from a sonic standpoint was heard around the turn of the millennium with math metal. I think he’s right and I’ve long suspected as much myself, although I’ve also felt rather ambivalent about the whole idea. This is mainly because like most of us, I’m a student of metal history and spend as much energy on revisiting past works as I do on checking out new releases. I’m also a lover/defender of subgenres like power metal, which is essentially a revivalist genre at heart (innovative exceptions do exist however).
Like Adrien, I’ve also observed that most of what is being passed off as innovative within metal today and in recent years has been a direct product of infusing a metal style with distinct non-metal influences. So we got the French interpretation of black metal, which began nearly a decade ago with Alcest mixing shoegaze with strains of post-rock and black metal. There was the development of metalcore in America, which merged a palatable form of hardcore with a severe dose of Gothenburg melodic death metal. The apparent trend now is the emergence of noise music as mixing agent with (predominantly) black metal, resulting in reviewers having to graft prefixes onto style descriptors such as post-black metal. Of course nu-metal happened too, a failure of a subgenre in that its influence never extended beyond young bands trying to get signed during the era of its reign. More examples abound, but the point is that in the past twenty years, only electronic music can match the amount of crossover influence that metal has experienced.
I’ll say this here clearly so no one mistakes my meaning: All of that is fine. Metal is popular music’s most malleable genre and that ability to bend, flex, and shoot off in an infinite number of directions has been and will forever be metal’s greatest strength.
So coming back to Deafheaven then, who with Sunbather can lay claim to having 2013’s most critically lauded album (according to Metacritic), Adrien was a lone voice of dissent amongst the top ranks of metal writers/reviewers with his review of the album for MSN. I was inclined to avoid mentioning the band at all on this blog just because I felt that enough was being written about them in general and that any criticism I mentioned would be met with a degree of “this from the power metal guy?”. The truth is that I think Sunbather is an often brilliant album on a musical level; I love the melodies within “Dream House” and particularly the quiet, dreamy instrumental “Irresistible”. Kerry McCoy is obviously the band’s musical core, using layered guitars both as impressionist paintbrushes and as mechanisms for melodic hooks. The aforementioned songs are two that I’ll find myself coming back for, but not everything is as enchanting, there’s a noticeable dip in the second half of the record where I find the hooks lacking. Still, musically speaking Sunbather is unimpeachable.
My main criticism of the album is directed at the atonal, almost tinny vocals of George Clark —- they don’t work for me and I feel that not only do they detract from the great music going on underneath, but that they are simply uninteresting as an instrument in and of itself. I’m not going to assert that Deafheaven would be better suited with Alcest-like dream-pop vocals ala Neige, because that’s seemingly a non-starter of a take, however I will agree with Adrien when he calls into question the need for harsh, extreme vocals with lyrics like “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”. That awkward dichotomy is an aspect of the album that makes it easy for the band’s detractors to argue that they utilize black metal styled vocals as a bulwark in order to freely name drop Burzum and associate themselves with the mystery of black metal in an unassailable manner.
I recently exchanged emails with a fellow metal fan who stated his belief that Deafheaven’s decision to use pink, minimalist cover art was as cynical a marketing ploy as the most grotesque Cannibal Corpse album sleeve designed to shock parents and thrill teenagers (it certainly did the trick to get them noticed by Apple). The argument being that every aspect of Deafheaven is driven by design to bolster their media profile: black metal associations draw attention from metal fans that would have normally ignored the band, while the usage of soft, pastel colored art with a lack of traditional metal window dressing help to entice the indie-music world. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the topic, but I’m surprised that he didn’t mention that maybe it helps that the band members look an awful lot like the reviewers that love them (not a slight by the way, but I imagine that a Brooklyn based writer can identify easier with members of Deafheaven personally than say, Watain or Carpathian Forest).
The big takeaway for Adrien regarding Sunbather is that it is quite possibly a line of demarcation between extremity and metal. He raises an interesting question: What defines something as metal, given that the term applies to artists that sound as strikingly different from one another such as Gamma Ray, Morbid Angel, Megadeth, Nightwish, Opeth, and Darkthrone? He answers this question with a statement that is all encompassing in it’s simplicity: “Contrary to what some might assume, extremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is.” Adrien’s essay was controversial for his assertion that Sunbather was not a metal album, but I think he’s onto something that everyone writing about metal should take a moment to consider: The logical natural progression of extreme metal that has merged with outside influences is to allow more space for those influences.
Alcest’s new album Shelter comes out this week, courting a lot of discussion due to its complete lack of anything resembling metal. Frontman Neige has gone on record saying the shift away from even minimal black metal elements was completely intentional, a by design move prompted by his lack of interest in the style. No matter how much Deafheaven trumpet Burzum as “the blueprint”, their most obvious influence was the French black metal expansions by Alcest. So where do they go from Sunbather? Short of repeating themselves, I’d expect that the next Deafheaven record will shed more than a few metallic elements. To quote Adrien a final time: “Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely… And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” is the true limitless form of music.” If my prediction comes true, metal sites will still discuss future Deafheaven releases as they are Alcest’s Shelter, much like I still wrote about the recent, unabashedly non-metal releases by once doom-metallers Anathema. Ironic that after all the agitation and debate on Deafheaven’s metal cred, we’ll find ourselves unable to cast them out to the indie wolves. Once you’re in, apparently, you’re in for life.
A few years ago I published an article that drew a bit of controversy for questioning the narrowly scoped metal coverage of many big platform websites/publications. It was an admittedly flawed piece in execution, but my motive behind it was to get answers to what I still feel are unanswered questions: Why are those big platform publications’ year end lists comprised primarily of albums that are defined by their non-metal influences? Why are releases by bands of all metal subgenres that embrace traditionalism and revivalism in all aspects (music, artwork, appearance) more often ignored? Why are traditional metal and power metal ignored altogether, despite their being a significant presence in the listening habits of metal fans worldwide? Maybe a new question for the big platformers needs to be added to that list: What is their definition of metal?