Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a concept inherent in the term “demo,” isn’t there? Kind of a universal thing, where the simple definition of what a demo is serves as a descriptor, or even a warning, as to the quality of music you’ll find within. See, the whole idea is that a demo works as a rough draft, or a blueprint, that bands use to cobble together ideas that may eventually end up on an album, or to showcase their talents for a potential label. You don’t pay through the nose for a demo – you record it yourself, as best you can, in the hopes that you’ll get some sort of financial backing to realize the full potential in a real studio with a real producer. These days, even with home-recording equipment better, cheaper, and more readily available than it was as little as ten years ago, you’ve gotta have a pretty good understanding of what you’re doing even if you’re in a garage rock band who simply needs its inputs cranked to the red to get the desired sound – let alone if you’re in a technical metal band.
And that’s where Deafheaven enters the picture – with a demo that’s more “demo” than actual demo, and, just to let me confuse you a little more, is called Demo. What does this mean? It means that the San Francisco band (a quintet now, although at the time of Demo’s recording and release they were a duo comprised of George Clarke and Kerry McCoy) pretty much emerged fully formed, and made a mockery of the whole demo policy with a recording that’s so good, I recommend it here without reservation as the definitive place to start for the band. I say this knowing full well that Roads to Judah, the band’s debut full-length, is even better. So there.
I don’t know if I’d have singled out Deafheaven on its own without the band’s intriguing blend of styles and influences. I may have lost them in the sea of “black metal” acts I need to someday traverse with more efficiency. I place “black metal” in scare quotes because, despite the band’s logical landing spot in that scene, there’s so much more to them. Clarke and McCoy used to do the grindcore thing, and they released Roads to Judah on Deathwish Inc., the label run by Jacob Bannon of Converge. Guitarist Nick Bassett played in shoegaze band Whirr. They’ve toured with post-rock/post-metal band Russian Circles. And yet they still hew closely to the template set forth by American black metal demigods Wolves in the Throne Room.
I mention all this because it’s precisely that somewhat disparate backdrop that I find intriguing – I’m all about the combination of styles in any setting really, see what sticks and all that, but a black metal/shoegaze/post rock hybrid has thick and heady possibilities that are pretty difficult to ignore. And while the four tracks found on Demo spread themselves over about 25 minutes, even in this truncated setting and with only two-fifths of the current band performing them, they still come off as mini-opuses.
Before I regale you with the tracks themselves, I’m going to take a brief aside to discuss genre. I could go on about post this post that, post rock, post metal, post hardcore, post post post, a prefix derided in some circles as an empty descriptor employed by lazy journalists who couldn’t come up with a better term for what they were hearing. Yes, it’s overused. But it’s a postmodern approach, or a deconstructive approach of the norm, that certain bands employ to push the boundaries of high-walled genres into new territory. Thus, post rock employs classical, jazz, and metal influences, and post metal injects dynamics and atmospherics into its brutality. These are simplified examples, sure, but when I see “post” in front of a band’s descriptor, I hope for something new and exciting. “Post” opened doors to other genres for me, including black metal, so I’ll forever be grateful for its existence.
I hope I never have to explain that again, I’m coming off like a wanker.
Anyway, to Demo, Wolves in the Throne Room’s presence is felt right away in “Libertine Dissolves,” as atmosphere and speed collide for a brutal yet melodic opener. It’s less than six minutes long (WitTR’s tunes often extend ten to fifteen minutes), but it feels bigger. And what’s that? A major chord in the comedown after the opening onslaught? Oh Deafheaven, you minx! (Metal fans, easy.) It’s not all pummel and shriek, and “Bedrooms,” the second track, is even acoustic! It kind of has this “Nothing Else Matters” vibe going on, as it’s a carefully plucked acoustic number, but don’t let that fool you, or dissuade you, or piss you off or something. It’s very short, very concise, and perfectly fulfills its purpose as a bridge between “Libertine Dissolves” and “Daedalus.”
And it’s that latter tune, “Daedalus,” that I immediately latched on to. It opens with traditional rock instrumentation, dare I say emo in its delivery, like it’s The Get Up Kids or something. It’s a nice hook and a nice curveball, but then, sure enough, there’s that shrieking – it’s definitely Deafheaven. But the sheer melodicism of the song pushes it into new territory, a hybrid where the more extreme deliveries can coexist with those closer to the universal points of the spectrum. And then there’s “Exit: Denied,” the epic eleven-minute closer that crams everything that’s come before it into one marathon session. It opens acoustically, then barrages us, then opens up with soaring guitar melodies, then crashes and chugs through a sludge-metal denoument. It’s perfect for fans of a million different genres.
So yeah, demo. Demo. That wily little term, and that contradictory beginning to Deafheaven’s career. What could easily have eventually been tucked away in a drawer or a folder was unleashed upon us, challenging its very nature by its sheer quality. An excellent debut. Few bands start out like this, and continue to make equally compelling music.
And then Deafheaven made Roads to Judah.
RIYL: Wolves in the Throne Room, Russian Circles, Pelican, Converge
“LIBERTINE DISSOLVES (live)”