Anti- • 2018

Anti- • 2018

I have no history with black metal, so the music of Deafheaven was never a surefire proposition for me. Yet since the release of eir sophomore album Sunbather in 2013, I like many others, became improbably fascinated by their fusion of gossamer shoegaze dreaminess, post rock’s epic ascension and metal’s relentless brutality. As intrepid as their approach seemed at the time, founding member/lead guitarist Kerry McCoy would freely admit,  "The whole shoegaze/black metal, or post-black metal thing, was being done ten years before we were a band."  Whether or not their aesthetic was considered innovative in metal circles had little to do with the barriers it obliterated for me personally.

Previously, I had found metal useful in eliciting a purely physical rush or inspiring certain dark flights of imagination, but never approached it as a vehicle for genuine emotional catharsis. But something in McCoy’s shimmering textures, imported recognizably from the likes of Slowdive and The Cure, served as a familiar portal through which to embrace the music’s more extreme elements. Also, it helped just knowing that, in lieu of witches and demons, lead screamer George Clarke was howling about the more earthbound, unexotic horrors of depression, poverty and romantic loss, even though I could hardly understand a word through his wraith-like wail.

On their fourth and most recent album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven prove that five years after their breakthrough record, they still have the capacity to stun. Their core sound remains largely unchanged, but their proficiency as a band has grown to accommodate more agile compositions. Whereas previous highlights “Dream House” or “Brought to the Water” lumbered heavily through their expansive tempo changes and mood shifts, the sprawling “Honeycomb” pivots nimbly from pummeling onslaught to post-hardcore fist pumper, through to a sequence of summery road-trip riffs, and on to a mid-tempo stargazing finale, all while barely breaking stride. There are also a few new wrinkles here: the jaw-dropping “Canary Yellow” culminates in a group sung, arm-waving final chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Arcade Fire album.

Most notably, the band has allowed their prettier instincts to dominate full length songs instead of being confined to outros and interludes; the gorgeous “Near” is an airy lullaby anchored by a chant delicate enough to make you check you haven’t mistakenly switched to some classic dream-pop playlist, while “Night People” is an alluring nocturnal ballad that finds perennial shrieker Clarke debuting a newfound croon in a duet with goth priestess Chelsea Wolfe.

Which brings us to Deafheaven’s biggest sticking point for non-metal listeners: Clarke’s uncompromising vocals. Initially, they were an obstacle for me as well, but the more I listened, the more I  found my ears realigning to accommodate their function in these songs; like a foreign language that initially sounds indistinct, but attains nuance and clarity through exposure and repetition. A good deal of metal traffics in rage, but Deafheaven aim for nothing short of total transcendence. On any given track, McCoy’s multi-colored arsenal of styles and riffs form the melodic backbone (the guitar parts are what get stuck in your head), allowing Clarke to paint more impressionistically from a vantage where fear, joy, grief, longing and yes, anger are thrown together in a chaotic swirl that demands an extreme mode of expression. It is the overwhelming sound of someone feeling all of their feelings at once.

Ordinary Corrupt Human Love has its drawbacks; despite the generous pacing, which involves lengthier stopovers into fragile balladry, it can still be a draining affair. Any prolonged exposure depends on your appetite for catharsis by way of rigorous intensity.  Plus, four albums in, a bit of the shock and awe upon first hearing their sound has worn off. That said, Deafheaven have demonstrated they are far more than one trick ponies--clearly focused on expanding their horizons while remaining fiercely committed to the ecstatic noise they started.

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