San Franciscan quintet Deafheaven have caused quite a stir this year. In crafting a sound which borrows from several different subgenres they have seamlessly transcended genre and scene boundaries, attracting praise from unlikely sources. ‘Roads to Judah’ saw ethereal black metal and post-rock meet the more earthly sounds of hardcore and screamo, and it would seem in Deafheaven's capable hands the two approaches coexist amiably. Their combined effect was devastating and Deafheaven’s ability to transfuse genres, thus creating their own niche in the blogosphere of music criticism, was impressive. Before ‘Roads to Judah’, however, came a relatively understated self-titled demo. Considering the diversity found on its successor, it makes sense that the demo ultimately sounds like an early draft.
Admittedly this is not an album, nor an EP, and so structural coherency is all but non-existent here. Furthermore, sonic uniformity is largely absent as the band experiments in several different genres and approaches to songwriting. In terms of one solid listening experience this is unhelpful, but when taking the demo for what it is this criticism is negligible.
The demo is book-ended by the two tracks most resembling those found on ‘Roads to Judah’, but in between these moments of violent beauty lie two wholly unexpected instances of experimentation. The tumbling acoustics of ‘Bedroom’
offer a naked, tender respite from the wall of sound Deafheaven are so adept at creating; the marriage of post-punk, shoegaze and ambient black metal in ‘Daedalus’
is startling. In fact, there are times during the latter where such flitting between genres is uncomfortable but the ambition displayed is admirable. The former is much more one-dimensional but is all the more beautiful for this. Its singular focus and ability to affect a soothing stillness over the listener are reasons why it is a highlight.
However, even on the demo it is already abundantly clear where Deafheaven’s strengths lie and that is in their creation of more aggressive, expansive tracks which blend characteristics from several genres. ‘Libertine Dissolves’
and ‘Exit: Denied’
are both awash with breath-taking tremolos and cranium-shattering blast-beats which, together, create a vast ocean of noise, simultaneously stunning and fearsome to behold. Both tracks display Deafheaven’s masterful structuring, allowing motifs ample time and space to settle before building on them or changing them entirely. This patient conservatism ensures that each and every part of the track is emphasised and is crucial to the whole experience. It is also on these two tracks that Deafheaven mix genres with greater fluidity and avoid the jarring transitions of ‘Daedalus’. Instead, their experimental flirtations with screamo, post-rock and, most prominently, black metal, combine seamlessly to form a sleek, glorious overall sound.
Though occasionally they bite off a little more than they can chew (‘Daedalus’), it is clear from the very start that Deafheaven are an ambitious, slick and powerful band. Tracks such as ‘Libertine Dissolves’, ‘Exit: Denied’ and ‘Daedalus’ largely form a template of what was to come, and though not as impeccable as their successors they are still thoroughly impressive. That’s not to say that Deafheaven’s demo is flawless though. While its patient structuring is impressive (especially for a band effectively in their infancy) the feeling that all four tracks don’t quite reach the soaring heights Deafheaven are aiming for is inescapable. That being said, they still come very close, and ultimately that is good enough.