“Where has my passion gone?” screams George Clarke on “Brought to the Water,” the first track on Deafheaven’s excellent 2015 album New Bermuda. “Has it been carried off by some lonely driver in a line of fluorescent light? Has it been blurred together in ribboned patterns on the night?”
You’d be forgiven for not understanding Clarke’s lyrics, even after multiple listens. His vocal delivery is a scratchy yowl that often feels more textural than communicative. It’s also encased within a massive wall of sound — the churning, riff-heavy guitars of Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, the relentless rumbling of Daniel Tracy’s drumming — and when the instrumentation drops off into a softer, more melodic part of the song, Clarke falls silent.
But Clarke’s vocals, as abstracted and obscured as they are, provide the thematic backbone of most of Deafheaven’s music. On New Bermuda, they imbue the band’s catchy, genre-bending metal with a pervasive existential despair, brought on by Clarke’s disillusionment after moving to Los Angeles (“Tricked into some fodder about this oasis,” he sings on “Luna,” a song decrying L.A.’s “scorching reimagined suburbia”).
“At the time, I was going through a lot of change,” Clarke says, “and some of the change I wasn’t really into.”
It’s a much darker record than its predecessor, 2013’s Sunbather, which served as the Deafheaven’s breakthrough album. That record’s lyrics focused on hopeful fantasies of attaining a better, more opulent life — dreams that New Bermuda, in turn, presents as broken and naïve.
The dreaminess of Sunbather’s lyrics was complemented by its reverb-heavy instrumentation, which drew a clear line between the band’s black metal and shoegaze, a genre of indie rock built around atmospheric guitar effects. But on New Bermuda, Clarke says, the band decided to “trim the fat.” Instead of expansive soundscapes, he says, the band were more interested in creating “something that was a bit more streamlined and something a bit more riff-focused… Just tighter songs with strong melodies.”
The shift in tone between albums was aided by an infusion of new blood. Promotion of Sunbather focused largely on Clarke and McCoy, high school friends who had founded the band in 2010 and remained its only consistent members. After the release of Sunbather, though, Tracy, Mehra and bassist Stephen Clark joined the band’s core lineup, which Clarke describes as “the biggest change in our songwriting dynamic,” making New Bermuda “more of a communal effort” than the band’s previous records, with Mehra taking on a greater creative role.
“Usually, [songs are composed from] riffs written on their own between Kerry and Shiv,” Clarke says. “Then they show each other what they have, and one of them will notice similarities between two [riffs] and put them together.
“I think that’s the most challenging part of our songwriting process is trying to transition between everything, to make it seem like a fluid, single piece, because there is typically a lot going on there,” he adds. “But I think that they do a good job at figuring it out and making it flow.”
Clarke and McCoy’s creative dynamic didn’t change much, however. “[That’s] only because we’ve had a strong relationship for a long time now,” Clarke says. “I think that we’re really used to each other, and that really works for us in a lot of ways. It makes it easier to show each other ideas and openly discuss what it is we’re trying to accomplish with the songs.”
Deafheaven’s willingness to experiment with the boundaries of black metal’s sound has been met with acclaim from mainstream publications (review aggregator Metacritic declared Sunbather the “best-reviewed major album of 2013), but the metal community — often an aesthetically conservative bunch — has been less unanimous in its praise. It’s a pushback that’s greeted other metal bands with potential crossover appeal, like Arkansas-based doom metal group Pallbearer.
Clarke, for one, says he’s not bothered by the criticism. “I like where we’re at,” he says. “I think that our mentality and our songwriting allows us to be very open-ended with what we choose to do as a band — bands we get to tour with, albums we get to make, what labels we get to make them with — I think it’s important to have that openness to not get creatively stifled.
“I think Pallbearer feels the same way. When we toured with them, that was a talking point between the two bands, especially at first — how we both exist with the scene but also don’t and have the liberty to float around and create our own identity and create our own band. It’s like, we’re cutting through and just taking whoever is willing to go with us. It’s a weird thing. It’s important on a creative level, I think, to act that way.”
The ending of New Bermuda, meanwhile, is uncompromising on its own. Clarke describes the concluding track, “Gifts for the Earth,” as an “all-encompassing” exploration of the album’s anxiety and despair and the best way “to finish it off.” He’s talking somewhat literally — ”Gifts for the Earth” provides the album’s only moment of peaceful escape as Clarke ponders his own inevitable death. “I imagine the end,” he shouts, “Then further downward so that I can rest / Cocooned by the heat of the ocean floor.”
“That song’s just about giving up,” Clarke says. “It’s about the pleasure of giving up, the beauty in letting go. Lyrically, it’s very downtrodden and negative, but it also tries to see the beauty in that negativity.”
Deafheaven will perform at Iron City on Wednesday, November 9. Carcass will also headline; Inter Arma will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 the day of the show. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.