Deafheaven appeared out of nowhere in 2011 with a solid debut LP, and then became the decade’s most exhaustively-argued-about purveyors of heavy music in 2013. They might be the most “love it or hate it” thing in metal since Metallica hired Bob Rock and decided it was okay to hear bass again. Deafheaven’s discography follows a pretty straightforward arc: black metal with a little dream pop, then an equal mixture of black metal and dream pop, and finally, dream pop with a little black metal. They have an EP, a killer standalone single, and five studio albums. Let’s go:
5. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (2018)
Deafheaven had been straddling the line between underground and mainstream at this point, but the rave reviews from NPR helped make this the kind of record that could win a Grammy and be sold as an impulse item at the Whole Foods checkout. The sudden softening of their sound is outright startling, and makes the heavier parts feel tacked on, rather than intrinsic to the songwriting. Chelsea Wolfe appears on one track (as well as roughly 65% of metal albums worth listening to that were made in the 2010s), harmonizing gorgeously with vocalist George Clarke’s suddenly clean vocals. By no means a bad record, but it lacks momentum and cohesion.
Play It Again: “Glint” and “Near” (the latter is Deafheaven’s first unabashed dive into pure dream pop and it’s goddamn gorgeous)
Skip It: “You Without End.” Is there such a thing as sounding too triumphant? If so, this is it.
4. Infinite Granite (2021)
Every abrasive underground band is legally required to eventually put out one album that makes all the critics raise an eyebrow and say “Well, this is different!” This record completed the shift that Ordinary Corrupt Human Love had teased, pushing the dream pop/black metal ratio to something like 9:1. It’s like Beach House teamed up with Mogwai and they all binged on molly and early Mayhem records. The tracks are catchy and sexy as hell, but there’s a bland sameness that starts to creep in by the time you get to the halfway point. Whereas OCHL suffers from mild lack of cohesion, Infinite Granite suffers from mild homogeneity. While Clarke’s sudden banshee shrieks at the end of “Mombassa” gave some critics the vapors, that’s probably because they bought OCHL at Whole Foods three years earlier and never listened to anything else the band has ever done.
Play it Again: “Great Mass of Color,” “Shellstar”
Skip It: Honestly, we’re already at the point where skipping anything would be a damn shame, but we have to admit that “Neptune Raining Diamonds” lays the synths on a little too thick, and we didn’t even know that was possible. But yeah . . . lots of heavy synth.
3. New Bermuda (2015)
Deafheaven’s heaviest full-length. The band had just made themselves a reputation as too lightweight for the metalheads and too intense for the indie kids. But with New Bermuda, the band clearly wants to win over the metalheads; most of this thing sounds like molten steel boiling over in your speakers. And yet, there’s still a thoughtful sense of dynamic range. On opening track “Brought to the Water,” for a little over a minute, full-throttle white-knuckle metal gives way to waves of ethereal, chorus-saturated arpeggios. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of where the band’s next albums will go. But then, with a sudden whole-step descending hammer-on, it’s back to heavy-as-hell business as usual. We wanted to dock a point for the vinyl release being 2 LPs played at 45 RPM, because that’s weirdly annoying, but it still kicks hella ass.
Play It Again: “Luna”
Skip It: No, we’re not doing that anymore
Honorable Mention: Self-Titled Demo/EP
This was just George Clarke and Kerry McCoy before they put together any sort of lasting line-up. The songs aren’t as memorable, but it’s a super-heavy and head-bangable slab of abstract metal that feels immense and crushing while you’re in it, even if afterward you couldn’t hum a single bar if your life depended on it.
Play It Again: “Libertine Dissolves”
Skip It: “Bedrooms,” if you want absolutely nothing but hard-driving metal with no ethereal interludes whatsoever, you philistine.
2. Roads to Judah (2011)
Those slabs of abstract melody in the demo start to turn into something a little more refined here. Opener “Violet,” for instance, really takes its time with the ominously shimmering prelude before absolutely exploding a little past the four-minute mark. The whole album is basically a blueprint for taking the loud-quiet-loud dynamic of post-metal outfits like Isis and Pelican and Russian Circles, and raising the stakes several times over, fashioning a reliable-but-sometimes-tired routine into something uniquely unrestrained and emotive. Bonus points for the gorgeous cover art.
Play it Again: There are only four tracks, and the whole thing is practically EP length, so just put it all on repeat.
Skip It: Nothing to skip here
Honorable Mention: “Black Brick” (2019)
Deafheaven took their time putting out this unused track from the “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love” sessions, with no fanfare or promotion whatsoever, and it’s hard to believe that it didn’t make it onto the album. You could make the case that it just didn’t quite fit in with the other songs, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but only because it’s so much better than any of them. Thrashy, gnarly, in-your-face, and possibly the heaviest thing the band has ever made.
Play it Again: All of it
Skip It: None of it
1. Sunbather (2013)
Look, we tried really REALLY hard to find a reason not to rank it number one, but this record broke the early 2010s metal scene wide open, leaving heavy music fans pondering whether they could abide an Abercrombie-model-looking lead singer shrieking about “your moon dreams of the dirt and the sharp tongue of your zealous will” over blast beats and tremolo picking. The artsy flourishes that give the album space to breathe are genuinely affecting too. One field recording of an unhinged street preacher is pure Godspeed You Black Emperor, and we mean that in the best possible way. Another recording of guitarist Kerry McCoy trying to score drugs with his last $60, played over a malevolent dirge, is equally haunting. But none of these little avant-garde gestures would add up to much if the music around them weren’t so viciously uncompromising. 24 seconds into album opener “Dream House,” when those chords drop, you’ll think you got hit by the sonic equivalent of a humanity-ending asteroid. If this isn’t the best metal album of its decade, it’s certainly the most important.
Play it Again: Yes
Skip It: How dare you