When Roads to Judah dropped in 2011, I felt like I was hearing an important, fresh approach to music. At the time, I wrote that it sounded like Explosions in the Sky vs. Gorgoroth, like Red Sparowes vs. Leviathan, like Mono vs. Corpus Christii. It was exciting. Not that it was without precedent, of course. I had followed Alcest into similar territory, but Deafheaven’s choices seemed somewhat more raw and ragged around the edges. Then Sunbather became a headscratchingly divisive (sub)cultural phenomenon. It seemed like everybody was listening and had their own ironclad opinion. Either you were trve to the kvlt, and the record (and the band, and their friends, families and pets) were anathema, or you were a hipster poser praising the band for crossing boundaries, for shrugging off those restrictive extreme metal norms and embracing dorky shoegaze anthems as equally valid expressions of inner darkness. Or, like me, you were just interested in hearing music that spoke to you, and that was good enough, regardless of any allegiances the internet hordes demanded.
The world seemed to have expended all its exaltation and rage by the time New Bermuda found its way to our ears; those who dismissed the band probably never listened to the record, and those who followed the band got another shot of demonic rasping over warm major chords. It wasn’t Sunbather 2, but neither did it strike off in unforeseen new directions. We understood what we were likely to hear, there was no more reason to twist the panties. For that very reason, though, New Bermuda’s overall impact was muted. It felt like Deafheaven was digging in, fortifying their position, but that sense of freshness was beginning to wear off.
Which is why “You Without End,” the opening track from this summer’s splendidly titled Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, is such a joyful experience. Deafheaven use the song as a musical and thematic on-ramp of sorts, an entrance that expertly details the logical pathway from simple melody to the shadowy tonality and occulted complexity of emotion that wracks their overall sound. “You Without End” sounds like a band engaging the vast oceans of all possible music at a visceral, vulnerable level, uncluttered with preconceptions and fan expectations. The piano rolls forward brilliantly but unassumingly, quickly accompanied by mournfully bent guitar notes, and when the telltale drum transition occurs, we get downcast poetic spoken word rather than the expected blasting onslaught. Ethereal background singing joins briefly before the song climbs finally into its full, lush power. It is unpredictable and utterly organic, and it almost seems to explain everything that Deafheaven have worked toward without really sounding like any of it.
From there, “Honeycomb” takes the reins and steers the record into land of Deafheaven’s manna and honey (or bread and butter, if you prefer a more terrestrial pairing). The band’s visions are both convoluted and protracted – as with earlier albums, the ensuing songs venture out past the ten-minute mark, not because Deafheaven is foggy-brained or jam-dependent, but simply because the structures they’ve built have enough corridors, balconies and crawlspaces to merit the extended attention. Triumphant melodies and exultant rhythmic and chord progressions undulate behind George Clarke’s berating rasp. Athletic guitar heroics pierce the noise and add yet another dimension to the proceedings. Even shorter songs reach out to five minutes, and while they tie neatly into the thematic tone of the overall record, they really are their own entities, rather than being deployed as extensions of the longer pieces. Both “Near” and “Night People” pulse with strange colors and add to the overall delight of the journey.
On OCHL, Deafheaven refuse to settle for a scene or a sound, but rather open themselves up to textures and combinations that defy simple categorization. Music is their joy, their tool and their medium, and heaviness is just one thread in the process. Years ago, I expressed surprise that the band had found such a wide audience, given both their grating aggression and their willingness to eschew all the easy tropes that would endear them to bedraggled metal audiences. That said, if you leave the polarizing hype machine of the internet behind, you’ll actually find quite a few people who embrace multiple styles of music, people for whom it’s enough just to hear music that speaks to them. Maybe Deafheaven’s audience isn’t so surprising after all. Maybe OCHL can inspire more musicians to cast off rigid boundaries and simply revel in the uncaged joy of making wild music.
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