I suppose the simplest way to describe Deafheaven would be “black metal turned on its head“. There are elements of black metal – the harsh vocals, shrill guitars, and blast beats – but the parallels end there.
Where black metal conjures images of Nordic wastelands and frozen forests, Deafheaven invokes sunny beaches and San Francisco. The melodies and chords are brighter and seem more in line with the 90s shoegaze scene than what you’d hear from Mayhem or Marduk. These observations are what led to them being branded “blackgaze”, a term that can probably be safely interchanged with post black metal. While other blackgaze bands (such as Alcest) lean more toward atmospheric black metal, or post metal, and further into gothic and alternative, Deafheaven have forged ahead with much more dynamic pop sensibilities. This direction in their sound has set them apart from many contemporaries and afforded them a remarkable level of mainstream success for a band with such aggressive vocals and overall sound.
This brighter, dreamier version blackgaze truly hit mainstream success with Deafheaven’s 2013 album ‘Sunbather’. ‘Sunbather’ has been acclaimed by critics, mainstream and metal-focused alike. And while a swathe of the metal purists regard the album with disdain due to the perceived “wrong” attention it gained extreme metal genres, it is no doubt responsible for bringing countless people to black metal and post metal due to a hard-to-pinpoint accessibility.
The album should not only be lauded for its place in the broader sense of influence and serving as an entry point to metal, however. It should also be celebrated for being something truly original. It is not often an album comes along that, without even the benefit of hindsight, you just know, right there in the moment, you are listening to something genuinely new. A game changer.
‘Sunbather’ was and remains a game changer, and Deafheaven have only continued to forge that new path in the years since.