Tuesday, August 7, 2018

album review: 'rituals' by deaf havana

I've said this a number of times before, but about eighteen months ago, if you had told me that Deaf Havana would have wound up with a record on my list of the best of 2017, along with multiple songs making my other lists... well, I wouldn't have called you crazy, but I would have been extremely skeptical. But that's because All These Countless Nights by Deaf Havana isn't the sort of record that folks would expect to put on year-end lists - the production was arguably less colorful than their previous record, and the mood had taken a severe turn for the melancholy. It was a record wracked by drifting numbness, and I'm not surprised at all that it didn't resonate for everyone.

And yet for me it really did, mostly because the hooks were as strong as ever and the writing had improved by leaps and bounds - and I want to highlight that specifically, because that's the sort of advancement for a band that puts them in a higher tier, regardless of their sound. If you're great composers and lyricists, even if the production doesn't go your way you'll have a layer of underlying quality, and that gave me a lot of hope going into Rituals this year. Yeah, the buzz was not nearly as positive in comparison to All These Countless Nights, mostly thanks to the band making a pivot towards pop tones like every other rock band going right now, but I wasn't against this in theory: they've always had a strong pop undercurrent when it came to melody, and it's not like I'm against retro-80s pop rock on principle, so what did we get out of Rituals?

So here's the tricky thing: I want to state right now that I don't think this record is better than All These Countless Nights, and for many of the reasons you might expect for a rock band picking up more of a modern pop focus adopting more of the percussion over melody approach - hell, on that basis alone, it's just not as catchy. But I'll freely admit that this is an album I was prepared to score a lot more harshly until I delved deeper into the lyrics, because I'll be damned if Deaf Havana doesn't pull a pretty effective fast one on the audience expecting more of a pop record, proving the intellect that's long-persisted behind the band hasn't gone away and that approach has thrown off some people only skimming the surface.

Now let me make it clear that at least on the surface, the content for Deaf Havana doesn't escape unscathed - from a pure poetry standpoint, for as good as the band is in stringing direct but layered turns of phrase, the detail just is not there in the same way to give more of these tracks a distinctive identity, which doesn't help certain songs escape running together. And while much of the angst that played through the heavier alternative rock of their last release could make that a more draining listen, the content on Rituals is no less angst-ridden. And on the one hand, Deaf Havana have long been able to leverage this as a strength, specifically around the framing: where a lesser band exploring similar relationship dysfunction might focus on the melodrama or keep themselves out of the uglier framing, Deaf Havana make it damn certain that if they do have harsh words for their partner or ex-partner, they'll have even harsher words for themselves, not helped by practically swimming in alcoholic co-dependence. And that refusal to pull any punches gives the drag-out relationship struggles a fair amount of heft, especially when frontman James Veck-Gilodi is wracked with guilt for how desperate he is for human contact that he'll continue to enable this living hell for the both of them. And what gets interesting is that especially when this material is married to brighter pop textures like on 'Holy', it could raise questions about the framing... and man, he knows it, because he starts referencing older Deaf Havana songs and then on 'Evil' highlights how he 'made people fall in love with the way he made them feel' - being able to speak to such angst with clarity to others only heightens the guilt as it screams of the same emotional manipulation he's used in relationships. And then the narrative shifts - changes in pronouns imply a new figure entering the picture where the love feels renewed instead of toxic co-dependence and he's realizing the internal steps he needs to heal, admitting the normal life he wants and for which he's fought so damn hard... but that darker side of him is not going anywhere.

But here's the thing: Veck-Gilodi has admitted these songs are significantly less literal than previous Deaf Havana records - he's drawing on some of his real-life experiences, but they're more abstract, more exaggerated and broad in their toxic wallow than usual... and as much as I admire the thematic weight, you can definitely tell in the details. He's also said that he started with lyrics before moving onto melodies instead of the other way around, and while you can definitely tell this too, the consequences were at lot more dire, especially when you look at the production. I'll freely admit that cuts like 'Sinner' do have some real appeal with the overdubbed vocal harmonies, but that's one of the few cases where any sort of significant melody holds at the forefront, because even when they might be carried on synthesizers instead of guitars, the emphasis is focused far more on heavy percussion, reverb and flashy texture instead of melodic tone. And to be blunt, this is absolutely the wrong choice for Deaf Havana, a band that's always had a strong melodic core and doesn't need to weaken it, especially when that strips away a deeper sense of individuality for the group in comparison with other pop rock acts right now! The haze of choppy vocal fragments on 'Hell', the pitched-down and warped synthetic vocals tacked onto 'Evil' and 'Saint', and production that does so little to emphasize any deeper heft or groove all across this record, it leaves cuts lacking distinctive foundation, a melodic core that the band would need in either rock or pop! And while the vocal lines remain as catchy as ever, there are precious few instrumental moments that flatter them and don't feel like something that you'd hear on One Direction's Made In The A.M. - I appreciated whatever guitar we got on the title track and the sharper acoustic work on 'Saviour' and how much 'Pure' leveraged a bassline that sounds like it came from an actual rock song, but when you pair it with James Veck-Gilodi's oddly slurred vocal delivery on a fair few cuts, it's just not enough, and that's before we get the more programmed percussion!

In short... man, I feel like what happened when The Wombats put out Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life earlier this year, and the only thing holding back greater disappointment is the fact that the band will probably pivot towards a different sound or method of composition for the next project. But for me... as much as I might like some of the lyrical ideas and framing, on a sonic level Rituals feels like a misfire for Deaf Havana - not a bad one, but certainly not one I'll remember much of in a month. And thus for me... yeah, sadly this is a very strong 6/10 and only recommended for the diehard fans. Everyone else... look, their more melodic and memorable rock stuff isn't going anywhere, so I'll stick with that.

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