Feats of Strength: Deafheaven

Deafheaven’s second album Sunbather came out of nowhere to appear by the end of 2013 on numerous Best Albums lists.  It was no small feat for a black metal album, considering how rarely the genre receives recognition from a broad critical audience–no matter how brilliant or adventurous it may be, black metal tends to be confined to a specific niche audience.  I myself am not a particularly avid metal fan; I tend to stick to a few favorites, and usually do not venture into the more extreme subgenres.  However, after a random search through Metacritic midway through last year to see what albums I may have missed, I noticed one album with a peculiar cover with a score in the 90s, and I knew I had to check it out despite any possible misgivings about the labelled genre.*

I wasn’t the only person that ventured out of my comfort zone, as there were plenty of other fans and critics that went out of their way to praise the album.  But I found it interesting that there seemed to be a consensus that the opening track “Dream House” was the clear highlight, it made me wonder how closely a lot of these people listened to the album as a whole.  I’m not saying that people didn’t actually listen to the album and claiming otherwise; “Dream House” is an excellent song and it does a great job of preparing the listener to what’s in store for the rest of the album.  It’s just that the closer “The Pecan Tree” is a perfect encapsulation of the different themes and styles of the album, one that ends with a beautifully cathartic release that may have been the peak musical moment in all of 2013.

In analyzing “The Pecan Tree”, it is then necessary to understand the structure of the album as a whole.  Sunbather is made up of four major multi-part metal songs (“Dream House”, “Sunbather”, “Vertigo”, and “The Pecan Tree”), with three interstitial pieces (“Irresistible”, “Please Remember”, “Windows”) mixed in between each that weave in gentler instrumentation (such as piano and acoustic or clean electric guitar) and sometimes accompanied by spoken word and captured field recordings.  It’s the combination of these elements that leads to the comparisons to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky, though there are musical ideas in the metal pieces as well that recall those post-rock artists.  These interstitial pieces aren’t mere throwaways, but instead provide much needed breaks from the pummeling music and emotional assault of the other tracks, and provide some context for the narrative of the album as well.

“The Pecan Tree” kicks off with a bang by immediately launching into a furious musical attack: a thick wall of guitars that bring to mind a more extreme version of shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine matched in perfect time by punishing drums playing an extremely complicated series of blast beats.  While the guitars are being played at an extremely rapid tempo, a careful listen reveals that over the top a melodic line is slowly being played over the dense chords, and that the drums match the melodic movement as well.  This leads to a gradual slowing down at around the four-minute mark, as the drums enter into a series of rolls with the emphasized beat punctuating each guitar chord, before settling into a peaceful lyrical ballad that recalls the interstitial tracks.  A descending guitar arpeggiated section evolves into a simple gorgeous piano melody, with another guitar providing a countermelody on top.  As before, we encountered one extreme emotion and are now faced with a different extreme, but this does not provide resolution.

The true release comes at the 7:54 mark, when the distorted guitar comes in again.  This is the moment that makes the album, that makes it all worth while to wallow in the muck and mire of what came before.  The guitars coalesce into a single octave figure, providing the clearest and most forceful melody on the album.  But while this is significant, the key to what makes this passage works is the drums, specifically with its half time feel.  I’m going to try to attempt to explain this in a way that isn’t too technical, so bear with me.  In music, we deal a concept called time signatures, which is how we subdivide the beat; for an outsider, this is how we break up a song so that we can all follow along easily and be on the same page.  When we talk about four beats to a measure, or a 3/4 waltz (boom tst-tst, boom tst-tst), this is what we’re talking about.  For the majority of the album, the drums alternate between regular time and double-time, like in the blast beat section at the beginning of the song that I mentioned.  Think of the difference between the two as the contrast between regular walking and a military march; in the latter, you may not be making any gains in speed, but there’s a different feel when you emphasize every single step and make sure everyone is moving at the same time.  You get a similar result when instead of everyone meeting on the 2 and 4 of each measure everyone is in lockstep 1-2-3-4.

The half time feel works in a similar way, but in the opposite direction.  By emphasizing less, it frees up the overall feel of the passage.  In the context of “The Pecan Tree”, it gives a sense of weighlessness to the music, as the drums purposely slow down and let the guitars float over the top.  Gradually, the drums enter in with a more standard pattern, but the feeling remains, even as the fills get busier.  The drums then are able to emphasize specific melodic patterns; notice how at around the 10 minute mark that while the cymbal hits are at a regular beat, the big hits on the kick drum and snare are still spread out.

This whole final section is worthy of praise, and if I were to try to convince someone to give Deafheaven a listen, this would be the specific part I would highlight.  However, while the section is great in and of itself, its true brilliance is captured when the listener has fully internalized and processed the rest of the album.  Notably, the guitars incorporate specific motifs from previous parts of the album and spin new melodies out of them, and the drums help bring out those specific patterns.  In addition, the rest of the album has to be experienced in order to get the full emotional effect of this final section; these are some beautiful melodies, but they stand out even more in comparison to what preceded it.  That’s not to say that the metal elements in previous songs lack melody, but that they don’t have the same uplift that this final section does.

And I think it’s the “uplift” that’s most significant.  The guitar parts do a great job of capturing the feeling of gradually coming down from a high, but it’s really the ingenious use of the half time feel of the drums that helps capture a feeling of weightlessness in the listener.  Often, the half time feel is a trick that bands will deploy seemingly at random, just for a quick burst of contrast from previous iterations of the same progression or riff.  In the case of Deafheaven, there is a real purpose to the half time feel, and it helps turn “The Pecan Tree” into a true classic.

*The fact that Rolling Stone reviewed the album two months later and gave it a meh 3-star rating is about as Rolling Stone as it gets.

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2 comments

  1. Great review, I should check out this album. And yeah, it’s a shame Rolling Stone doesn’t put much thought into its reviews anymore. They gave the new Britney Spears album (which was critically panned by most sites) a higher score than Sunbather.

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