In black metal, as in hip-hop, authenticity is a perennial hot topic. Partly because both genres count actual criminals among their front ranks—whether a convicted murderer-arsonist such as Burzum’s Varg Vikernes or a long-reformed drug dealer like Jay-Z—emerging artists are consistently subjected to a perverse, juvenile sort of background check. As the tiresome 2011 debate surrounding Ivy League black-metalist and Liturgy leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix proved, musicians’ biographies (as well as how they dress and wear their hair) still shape the discourse surrounding their work.
Much like Liturgy, Deafheaven seems to relish its antipurist stance. The San Francisco group’s newly released second album, Sunbather, comes swathed in a Barbie-appropriate soft-pink color scheme, and core members George Clarke and Kerry McCoy scan more like exemplars of goth and emo fashion, respectively, than the standard corpse-paint-and-spikes look. Yet Deafheaven’s debt to black metal’s battle-tested playbook is plainly evident in Clarke’s rage-against-the-void screams and drummer Daniel Tracy’s vein-popping blastbeats.
The band’s signature is the way these aggro elements clash with McCoy’s distinctly, well, sunny guitar palette. The tremolo washes and triumphant leads on Sunbather reconcile subgenre pillars such as Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger with U2’s pedal-happy super-texturalist the Edge and post-rock mainstays Explosions in the Sky. Though it grows a tad wearisome over the course of the record’s epic expanse, this contrast is nifty—a reminder that it’s out-on-a-limb progressives like Clarke, McCoy and Hunt-Hendrix rather than finger-wagging traditionalists who keep black metal vital. Authentic? No comment. Inspired? Sure thing.—Hank Shteamer
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing