Saturday 25 January 2020

Deaf-initely, maybe: How heavy metal music is overlooked

Symphony of noise: George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, who count The Cranberries among their influences.
Symphony of noise: George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, who count The Cranberries among their influences.
Eamon Sweeney

Despite appealing to millions all over the world, heavy metal groups receive hardly any coverage in the mainstream media. Even so-called alternative tastemakers thumb their noses at what could arguably be the only truly rebellious music left in popular culture.

Yet a black metal-inspired band from outside San Francisco called Deafheaven have unexpectedly become one of the year's hottest acts and they're bringing the noise to a venue near you later this month.

"The chance to travel and share what we do with others is unique and one that we hold in very high regard," says lead screamer George Clarke during a brief break from a mammoth world tour. "It gives validation to what we write."

George Clarke and Kerry McCoy formed Deafheaven in 2010. The duo have worked with a revolving cast of musicians, although appear to be settling on a more permanent line-up. Clarke isn't entirely sure how exactly they chose their name, but he is aware of the phrase "deaf heaven" appearing in William Shakespeare's Sonnet 29. Before he died in 2011, controversial atheist author Christopher Hitchens appealed for people not to "trouble deaf heaven with bootless cries" as he confronted his dying days without the comfort blanket of faith. Clarke and McCoy put the two words together as an homage to shoegaze rock pioneers Slowdive.

Deafheaven's stunning second album Sunbather comes in a beautifully designed minimalist pink sleeve. The inside cover features an arresting and somewhat disturbing quote: 'Merry Christmas, 2012. I can't remember if Mom was ill with Alzheimer's or not during it, but she asks if you died? I tell her yes and she looks very sad, then she forgets.'

"The quote on the Sunbather record was directly taken from a letter my father had written to my uncle, two years after his passing, about my grandmother," Clarke explains. "He used to write letters to him to cope with his loss."

Sunbather is a stark exploration of love, loss, disappointment and frustration. "It is loosely about the sadness, frustration and anger that comes with striving for perfection," Clarke adds.

The album also features Stephane Paut, from Alcest, reading from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by the renowned Czech author Milan Kundera amidst its pulverising noise symphonies - which is not exactly the kind of thing you'd readily associate with black metal, or any other modern musical genre for that matter.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being was recommended to me by a friend," Clarke explains. "It ended up having an immense impact on me. His characters and the ideas of those characters were very congruent with mine. They felt very human and I related to them a lot. It became okay to make mistakes, know about your faults in character that lead to those mistakes, and then make them again. I've always liked that idea. It's a strange submission."

Musically, Deafheaven are inspired by Irish bands My Bloody Valentine, U2 and The Cranberries. "We are hugely influenced by all those bands," Clarke says. "The Cranberries inspired the closing track 'The Pecan Tree'. The whole second half of the song was written while we were listening to them a lot. The Irish and UK scenes of the late 1980s and 1990s are a large driving force behind what we do."

Somewhat predictably, Deafheaven have received some flak from black metal purists for creating so-called "hipster metal". Clarke holds a healthy disregard for the naysayers sneering at their crossover success. The singer takes some comfort from Kanye West, whose very name would invariably wind up those very same purists.

'A lot of people hate Kanye but I think he's a f***ing genius," Clarke enthuses. "It's important to take chances. Sometimes, it's also important to be arrogant about what you do. I also think it is very important to allow facets of your personality to be eccentric. So many people don't understand this. It is depressingly confining."

Deafheaven embark on their first Irish headline tour later this month. On the evidence of an appearance at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona, these shows could be strong 
contenders for gig of the year.

"I find the uplifting portion of our performance is the catharsis of releasing the negative sentiments of our music," Clarke contends. "It is our aim to always give the audience one hundred percent of our feeling."

It has taken Deafheaven four years to reach an exciting crossroads in their career, so what do they hope for in the next four? "Honestly, I don't know," Clarke replies. "Everything has its shelf life. Personally, I don't think we'll finish until we've proven everything we have to prove and once we have, I'll be happy to call it a day."

Catch Deafheaven while you can, because going deaf never sounded this good.

Deafheaven play Mandala Hall, Belfast on August 17, Roisin Dubh, Galway, on August 18 and Whelan's, Dublin on August 19. Sunbather is out now

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