One of the goofier conventions of metal (and especially black metal) is how bad the singing is. For every full-voiced Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) or Ronnie James Dio (Black Sabbath, Dio), there are something like 40 Cookie Monster-sounding twerps. It is baffling; part of the joy of metal is listening to someone who is truly excellent at their instrument go to work. This is true of the guitars and drums in most bands, but the same level of respect isn't often afforded to the singer.
The thing about black metal is that either you're going to be cool with, you know, a bunch of lyrics about Satan and shriek-y vocals, or you're going to laugh your head off and go back to Fetty Wap or Carly Rae Jepsen. Though San Francisco band Deafheaven is sometimes talked about as a "hipster" metal band, George Clarke's vocals are traditional death growls meant to reassure the audience: "We might be a metal band who listens to My Bloody Valentine, but don't worry, we're definitely still a metal band." In fact, compared to Sunbather — Deafheaven's previous effort — Clarke sounds like he's doubled down on their third album New Bermuda, with more rasp and an extra-abrasive sound. (Daniel Tracy's drum work, more vicious and skillful than on Sunbather, adds to this abrasion; Tracy is sickeningly talented.) Clarke's emotive range goes all the way from angry to inhumanly angry. Even Phil Anselmo occasionally took a break.
"We might be a metal band who listens to My Bloody Valentine, but don't worry, we're definitely still a metal band."
Of course, the point of the Cookie Monster voice is naked aggression. And so the screaming makes sense on lead track "Brought to the Water," which opens with bells tolling (for whom?) before laying down some truly monster riffs. The 8.5-minute track (nothing on the album clocks in at less than 8 minutes) leaves with some lovely piano music. This is by far the most conventional use of Clarke's voice on the album, and in some ways the most appealing. Here, he at least sounds like a person. What happens as the album progresses is that Clarke gets weirder.
Clarke's voice is used to double or reinforce all the distortion The next track, "Luna," is a jackhammer-like churn that is also — by some magic — swoonily cinematic. It rules. But what's interesting here is how Clarke's voice is used: first as an irritant, and then as a doubling or reinforcement of the distortion. By the end, he is almost pure noise. Pop music across all genres has gotten a lot louder and a lot noisier over the last several years, but in general, the vocals have remained comparatively clean. (Nero's "Crush on You" is a prime example; so is HEALTH.) By the end of the song, Clarke is low in the mix and sounds almost like feedback. On "Luna," as with everywhere else on the album, it is extremely difficult to actually make out what he is saying, but by the end of the track I suspect I hear him screaming "suburbia."
It doesn't really matter what Clarke is saying, though Deafheaven's lyrics have often been praised as being less dumb than most you find in metal. (This is not a high bar to clear.) I made out a few words and phrases here and there, but being able to understand the lyrics isn't really the point. Clarke's howls are too distorted for lyrics to have mattered much, anyway.
New Bermuda's centerpiece is "Baby Blue." It opens gently, with the kind of rippling guitar work that brings to mind Explosions in the Sky. After about 2.5 minutes, inevitably, the guitars ramp up, and around 4 minutes in, there's some truly remarkable shredding. Unlike "Luna" before it, "Boy Blue" isn't simultaneously pretty and abrasive — instead, it moves between the two. The loud parts are viciously aggressive; the soft parts are almost a lullaby. (It also has the most discernible words in it, in the form of a traffic announcement about the George Washington Bridge.)
Like "Luna," closer "Gifts For The Earth" combines beauty and aggression seamlessly, with Clarke's shrieks serving as a kind of human wub-wub-wub over angular post-punk guitars. From there, the song gets progressively heavier, with crunchier, more distorted guitars. And then, about 5 minutes in, Deafheaven quotes directly from "Champagne Supernova." It is the weirdest collision of sound I have heard in quite some time. But Oasis makes sense, in a way — peak Oasis was un-self-consciously epic, with a scale and grandeur few rock groups match. Deafheaven is on the same scale of ambition and sonic density, albeit in an entirely different genre. But the comparison also works because Oasis mimics the Beatles, the band whose "Helter Skelter" kicked off metal as a genre in the first place. (Think of Paul McCartney's electrified cat yowl as the original death growl.)
After several listens, I no longer thought of Clarke's vocals as singing at all
But, in listening, what I keep returning to is Clarke's voice. I can't even tell if I like it or not. In the context of the death metal tradition, it is staid. As an instrument, it is used almost purely to unsettle; no other tone is explored. On one hand, I'd like to see more range; a scream is louder and more impressive if it's compared to a whisper. But coming from other noisy genres — or approaching Deafheaven from shoegaze, post-punk, or their other influences — there's something perverse and intriguing about insisting on no clean vocals. Most noise these days, after all, is electronic; the yowling, howling, and growling on New Bermuda, by contrast, is organic. After several listens, I no longer thought of Clarke's vocals as singing at all. I can't tell, for sure, if that's throwback (metal) or avant-garde (nearly any other genre) — but the contradiction there isn't so unsettling. After all, this is a band that is capable of gorgeous thrashing; why should the weird vocals be any less contradictory?