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Deafheaven: How an S.F. Duo Made the Breakthrough Metal Album of the Year 

Wednesday, Sep 11 2013
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Six months ago, no one would've pegged San Francisco's Deafheaven as a likely juggernaut on the national heavy-music scene. Though its 2011 debut Roads to Judah was powerful, Deafheaven's blend of scabrous black metal and morose post-rock was definitely an acquired taste. It seemed like a band that, with some luck, might one day fill a small club like Hemlock Tavern.

But in 2013, all the right elements lined up. After a successful run opening for Japanese cult metal icons Boris, and playing in front of sold-out crowds in its biggest venues yet, Deafheaven released sophomore effort Sunbather. The album took a more layered approach than its predecessor, highlighting the band's dense guitar work, and critics went crazy for it. Mere days after the record's release in June, Deafheaven hit the road across the United States and sold out show after show, several of which were comparable in size to ones it'd shared with Boris. "I remember at one point looking at our itinerary and just seeing the whole Eastern seaboard filled with sold-out shows," says vocalist George Clarke over a beer in the Mission. "I thought, 'It's happening. This is what we've been working for all this time.'"

Much of the success is due to the obvious strength of Sunbather. Kerry McCoy wrapped his serpentine guitars (which often owe a debt to his hero Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Modest Mouse, and elsewhere) in a velvet hammer, creating a crushing backdrop for Clarke's emotive screeching. The result is one of the best metal records of the year. But part of what enabled the album to earn widespread acclaim was the efforts of Deafheaven's manager, Cathy Pellow, who had been pushing the band on a public she was sure would lap it up. It was a significant investment of effort and finances that didn't really pay off until this year. "She makes sure to let you know, too," laughs McCoy. "She likes to say, 'I turn coal into diamonds!'"

The cap on the success of Deafheaven's sophomore effort is that Clarke and McCoy, the creative leads and only constant members of the band, have now solidified a full, permanent lineup featuring drummer Daniel Tracy, bassist Stephen Clark, and guitarist Shiv Mehra. "This is the first time we've had three dudes who are completely on the level ... who are also the best musicians," says McCoy. As the band members prepare themselves for another round of touring, they're finding themselves, thankfully, not tired of playing material from their breakthrough record. ("We're just now getting our heads around it," Clarke says of the music.) They're also enjoying the downtime at home. "You get restless and bored or whatever," Clarke continues, "but this is still our favorite city."

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Alee Karim

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