The concept of “metalgaze” is problematic to more than a few metal listeners. It hardly requires a scouring of the deepest, darkest corners of a heshers-only message board to find an objection to the heavy metal and shoegazer hybridization on the grounds that a.) it’s not actually metal and b.) it’s a stupid name. For the latter, I might suggest “shoe-metal” as a viable alternative, but the former is a complaint that’s never going away, much like the painfully outdated criticisms of market savvy musicians as being “sell outs,” or that rappers who like expensive champagne aren’t “real.” For as much ire as shoegaze-influenced metal bands seem to draw, however, the pursuit is worthwhile, as artists like Jesu, Alcest and Wolves In the Throne Room have demonstrated via their own awe-inspiring works of power and density. Neither metal nor noise rock is a conventionally beautiful genre, after all, but each has been known to yield beauty well beyond the expected formula of energy and distortion.
If San Francisco’s Deafheaven has been on the business end of some of that purist ire, it’s only because their music seems far too graceful and elegant to qualify as metal under conventional terms. The band’s Deathwish Inc. debut Roads to Judah certainly takes a crystal sledgehammer to those conventions, but does so with the kind of dense and raw menace that only a black metal outfit could provide. It’s an immersive and beautiful experience, and, of course, a very loud one. Comprising only four lengthy tracks, Roads to Judah is sprawling, slowly building work that comes astonishingly close to the delicate post-rock of Sigur Ros, at least more than any metal album I’ve heard before. But even in their most melodic moments, the band can come on with the unstoppable force of a tornado, and it can stir up just as quickly as the real thing. After two minutes of gently ominous intro, “Unrequited” explodes into a gale force of black metal blast beats and George LeSage’s vicious howls. They craft a jaw-dropping epic of cascades, shifts in volume and tempo in “Violet,” stacking all of its 12 minutes with truly gripping moments. And “Language Games,” just shy of seven minutes, seems relatively concise in the context of the album, its pace steadily frantic amidst some of the most stunning melodies ever set to a USBM backdrop.
What’s perhaps most compelling about a band like Deafheaven is just how much nuance and contextual variation their music can contain. When listening to them on computer speakers, I caught more of their ascendant shoegazer melodies, while headphones revealed to me a more intense black metal experience. And each of those elements is strongly embedded in the band’s music, a mesmerizing mixture of sounds that, through brute force or sheer beauty, will leave an indelible impression no matter what.
Stream: Deafheaven – “Violet”