Album Review: DEAFHEAVEN New Bermuda
There are a few things I don’t get about the divisiveness that San Francisco’s Deafheaven has generated over the course of their two prior full-length releases, more so 2013’s breakout Sunbather than the Roads to Judah debut.
Actually, when any band comes along and has equal amounts love as hate thrown in their general direction, I find myself wondering what all the hubbub is about and, as much as I like to think of myself as a steel-plated and Teflon-coated independent iconoclastic thinker who would never fall prey to investigating the why, how and whatfor behind the petty arguments that result in hype, sometimes my natural curiosity is piqued.
But back to Deafheaven. Of course, not everyone is going to like everything, but why people feel the need to go out of their way to openly give them flack is beyond me. Yeah, yeah, yeah…with the power of the internet and its unfortunate social media spawn, not only does everyone have an opinion, but god-freaking-dammit if they aren’t going to crowbar their all-capped thoughts into any discussion – lack of research, reason, grammar and spell check be damned! Thusly, a lot of what enters into the critical zeitgeist is just noise and wasted digital space. There’s a reason that Alonzo Lerone dude’s YouTube page is so astronomically popular.
People, since the beginning of (metal) time immemorial (approximately 1970), bands have incorporated disparate pretty parts, mellow interludes, juxtaposed harsh atonality with melody, had short hair, worn glasses, been accepted by people outside of Johnny Bullet Belt and his eleven L.A. scene police pals and – this is probably Deafheaven’s greatest inadvertent offence to metal-dom – been accepted and trumpeted by those outside the headbanging cognoscenti. I can list off a shit ton of bands that have made similar moves towards the balancing of black metal with indie rock or shoegaze (Svarti Loghin, Alcest, Amesoeurs, An Autumn for Crippled Children, So Hideous, et al.).
But ask yourselves, why have none of those bands been on the receiving end of as much ire as Deafheaven, despite a couple of them arguably being a lot less “metal” than the output of George Clarke (vocals), Dan Tracy (drums), Stephen Lee Clark (bass) and Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra (guitars)? It’s likely because Deafheaven has been embraced by that elbow of the Pitchfork/Magnet/Vice/etc. media world that dabbles in those metal bands that, for whatever reason, speak to them. And when they like something or someone, they naturally want their two friends to know, and so on, and so on, and in due time Sunbather is selling copies like Faberge Organics used to sell shampoo. Then, like clockwork, the pejorative “hipster” or “emo” term gets attached to the band like a scarlet letter does to that friendly chick down the street, simply because she’s friendly.
Why those outlets and their respective fanbases have gravitated to Deafheaven more than they have, say, Bosse-de-Nage or Lantlos? Who knows? Why did younger crowds embrace Job for a Cowboy at the time of their apex as opposed to the countless others cut from a similar cloth? Who knows? There’s probably a valid, if not inexact, explanation that weaves together elements of personality, music, the promotional machine, being in the right place at the right time with the right people having their ears open at the right time. As well, you’re all familiar with the saying, “one in a million.” Maybe it’s a simple as Deafheaven being that one in a million. Whatever the case may be, I loved Sunbather. A lot of people I know do. A lot of people I know don’t like it. I was quite looking forward to what New Bermuda had to offer. I’m going to wager there are others in both boats. Ahh, life; why do you have to make things so complicated (and, by default, make reviews so contextually lengthy)?
The cliché that you’re probably going to stumble across in forthcoming critiques will discuss how New Bermuda takes all of the major elements of Sunbather and expands upon them. Sure. I mean, at its most basic and stripped down, that’s what Deafheaven does – juxtaposes searing black metal with dreamy alt-pop shoegaze. It’s the classic light vs. dark, good vs. evil, capitalism vs. communism, Tupac vs. Biggie horn-locking that any good tale of tension and release requires for effectiveness. That’s the basic blueprint the band is based upon and what comes out when you ferry the song writing nucleus of Clarke and McCoy into a room together.
However, what New Bermuda delivers is an overall more calamitous and harsher experience; more metal, as it were. That’s not to say that the ethereal and elegant have been dropped from the program, but take “Luna,” for instance. It’s a hearty dose of blackened blasting for most of its ten-minute duration that goes ahead and weaves in brief snippets of masterful 80s-styled thrash guitar and a jangly denouement while Clarke’s cauterizing voice haunts houses and scares banshees back to their holes. “Brought to the Water” makes similar moves, starting off as violent and savage as anything Norse metal purists would tickle their pickles to (in fact, if you did a blind test involving the first half of this song, the hipster hate squad would be unable to figure out the difference between this and something “truer”).
Yes, the shimmery lengths of Sunbather’s “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” are invoked, but the focus is on the heavier and inkier aspects of the riffing. At times, it’s almost like the directive was to rock out with cocks out, to prove that the band hails from and belongs on the dark side of the force; the pretty is present, but not as dichotomous and surface. It’s analogous to the difference between eyeballing someone from across a crowded room who's obviously spent two hours in front of a mirror doing a hair, make-up and clothing nip and tuck as opposed to spotting a person who looks fetching despite being decked out in ripped jeans and an ill-fitted shirt stained in Taco Bell toppings.
“Come Back” puts up stricter walls between the disparity. The heavy parts aren’t only limited to the bloated and over-extended tremolo-picked blackened part, but are also inclusive of minor key melodies and furious palm-muted chugging that falls somewhere between classic Metallica and Hellhammer/early Celtic Frost. Encouragingly, this track makes its melodic move towards a Lush-like (the band and the adjective, sure, why not?) caress and twang that’s almost imperceptible at first, but brilliant in its audacity and execution. “Gifts for the Earth” makes similar seamless shifts, but does so in reverse with the mellow and melodic in a position of dominance as the huge power chords interject like a Big Four ballad as the piano/guitar/tambourine outro reminding more of something off The Who’s Who’s Next or Face Dances than the likes of Slowdive or Ride.
It’s these sorts of insidious slides into second that have New Bermuda presenting as a more cohesive and synthesized work. Where the definition between Sunbather’s heavy and clean parts that egged on metallers and caught the ear of everyone else was separated by a pronounced line in the sand, New Bermuda’s approach is more like a rough shiatsu massage of either into or. There are moments where the distinction between modes is quite salient and overt (“Baby Blue”), but there’s a greater fusion as noted above, and even an expansion of their own hard-edged palate to include hypnotic drone, NWOBHM and epic post-metal on, ironically, enough “Baby Blue” again. This should go lengths to demonstrate just how far-reaching beyond “post-black metal with a shoegaze parts” New Bermuda is.