Tuesday, October 13, 2015

album review: 'new bermuda' by deafheaven

I can imagine there are a whole load of people who are looking at me doing this review right now and rolling their eyes. "Of course he's doing this review - some pasty white guy who spends most of his time talking about every other genre besides metal now is going to talk about Deafheaven? What does this Toronto hipster who spends more time listening to hip-hop and country know about black metal, so of course he talks about the least kvlt black metal act, the type that gets all the Pitchfork brats squealing that they're redefining the sound when frankly Burzum was blending in post-rock as early as '94 and Alcest was doing it in the mid-2000s and Wolves In The Throne Room were doing for nearly their entire career until they went experimental towards drone on Celestite...

So yeah, I did some of my homework here, but here's the funny thing: for the most part none of it is wrong, and one of the reasons I've been so hesitant to cover this record. Of the genres that I've delved into this year, black metal is one that remains tough for me to appreciate - partially because I've a fan of lyrics and between the screaming and production they can be hard to parse out, partially because, as I've said in the past, nihilistic subject matter only goes so far with me, and partially because I wanted to make sure I grasped the history of the genre before covering this record. And while I will whole-heartedly admit I've still got a ways to go, I think I can speak to why the hipster set went insane for an act like Deafheaven when they dropped the critically acclaimed Sunbather in 2013: melodies, transitions, and production. Yeah, they weren't as brutal or evil-sounding in comparison with some of the heaviest black metal I've heard, and the lyrics tended towards poetic abstraction instead of bone-crunching Satanism, but when the melodies were this good, the transitions this smooth, the atmosphere this potent, and the marketing of the band this accessible, it's no surprise people jumped on board. Now admittedly I wasn't really one of them - I've always been more of a progressive metal guy - but I could see why people liked Deafheaven; they weren't reinventing the wheel, but it's hard to deny the compositional skill.

So when I heard their newest record New Bermuda was going to be more aggressive and heavy, it really seemed like the best of two worlds - win back the metal elitists who dismissed them as hipster bait, and scare away the popular crowd who only jumped on board for that reason in the first place. And given that I've never really loved a Deafheaven record - Wolves In The Throne Room and In The Woods... both hit me a little harder, although the latter is more on the prog side - I still wanted to talk about this. So how did New Bermuda turn out?

Well, here's the thing: I've been through this album a number of times and I definitely do think it's good, but I won't say it's as strong as Sunbather and that comes from elements across the board. And it's funny, I've seen a number of reviews suggesting they're surprised that Deafheaven didn't go more for more of an accessible pop framework given their knack for solid melodies - the interesting thing is that I'd argue they did angle to make this record more accessible, but they did it in an area that's deceptively easy to ignore. 

But before I get to that bait-and-switch, the easiest place to start talking about New Bermuda is the production and instrumentation of this album, because say what you will about genre or content, these guys can play like hell. The interweaving guitar work has only gotten stronger, the bass plays a solid presence, and Daniel Tracy's drumwork... well, yeah, add me to the list of people praising this guy, because the complexities in his progressions, between thunderous double-kick cacophony and more impactful, more progressive rock segments - he's got the skill to make it sound spontaneous with the precision and care to let you know it's not. But while this album indulges in its fair share of meandering post-rock and progressive rock moments, it's the more straightforward metal chunks that draw the most immediate attention: the Slayer-esque riffs that open 'Luna', the Poets of the Fall-esque misty flutters on 'Baby Blue' that later drops into an absolutely ridiculous solo with some great melodic interplay, to the thickened, choppy riffs that drives the midsection of 'Come Back'. Even though the softer segments are more airy, shimmering, and accessible than ever, the metal segments are all the more aggressive and come in with even less warning.

And I'm honestly a little mixed on this. The riffs and drumming are all the more dense, but the melody can feel swallowed up, not quite given the same clarion space to soar. Sure, the more thrash-inspired sections are awesome, but I'm left feeling the crescendos don't really escalate melodically in the same way the drums do. In fact, while there are subtle melodic changeups, they don't really drive the tracks' momentum in the same way, and thus we don't quite get those melodic climax points. And it's bizarre, considering that this album is actually shorter than Sunbather that so many of these tracks feel meandering, as those post-rock and progressive rock segments amble on and don't really evolve to satisfying conclusions. I get they somewhat work with the lyrical subject matter - more on that in a bit - but it means that there are some songs that felt lacking in ideas to really drive home a conclusive moment, with the outros going long and just fading out with acoustic flutters or piano.

But could there be a reason for that? Well, now we've got to talk about the lyrics and the first acknowledgement that New Bermuda really is taking off right after Sunbather. Now the arc of that album featured the desperate quest to attain something, that thing or person of desire, and the opening cascade of bells against the oscillating wobble of organs makes it easy to think this album could have begun with a wedding. And yet almost immediately the passion sputters out and frontman George Clarke begins to wonder if he really found what he was looking for. It really is a new beginning, a new plan... and in typical Deafheaven fashion, it immediately starts to spiral towards darkness. 'Luna' takes the picture to L.A. and the rank dissatisfaction Clarke finds in wretchedly hot, humid suburbia, longing for the moment to get back to the gravel and not ossify into a relic. It's the stark realization that there's no perfect happy ending, and the moment of crushing weight as Clarke sees his bleak future ahead on 'Come Back' is indeed potent. It's why the final track 'Gifts For The Earth' shows Clarke greeting Death itself with a serene smile, drifting down to the ocean floor in a final escape, getting lost in that new Bermuda triangle. 

And if all of this screams of a midlife crisis waiting to happen, or feels borderline emo with the whinging wrapped into a more abstract package... well, that's not far off, but it's indicative of how difficult it can be to break out of triumph and find something new. And I'm not about to slam Deafheaven for this subject matter when I give The National a pass for similar stuff. At the same time, though, there's the matter of presentation - when you play this sort of existential ennui with so much insane bombast, the only thing that saves this record from feeling incredibly melodramatic is the lyrical abstraction and the fact that you can barely make out what George Clarke's vocals are all the more guttural and intense. And yet at the same time, considering how much Deafheaven push for bigger highs and lows, I'm left wishing that the subject matter could align with the emotions more directly for more pathos, because there are points that can feel a bit trite. The one spot where it really did hit me was the sample of the car radio about traffic on 'Baby Blue' - mostly because it feels like a moment where out of the screaming escape things crash down to reality, and for a record aiming to go darker, that's one of the starkest gut punches at all.

So look, I completely get why fans of Sunbather and of Deafheaven will like this - it's a natural sequel, it gets darker and heavier and draws all the more emphasis on the parts of the album that hit those extremes. But for as much as it does, I'm left wondering why it doesn't have the same emotional impact. Maybe its the subject matter, maybe its the tightened compositions that don't create enough build-up, maybe it's the tracks that feel like they don't have a solid endpoint. Regardless, I still respect the phenomenal playing and while I'm not certain the more progressive touches are the best fit for Deafheaven in the long-term - contrary to some opinions, I wouldn't want them working with Steven Wilson, it just doesn't fit for me right now - I do respect how well so much of it is executed. For me, this record is a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation for those who like black metal and even those who don't - but check out Sunbather first. Because even though they didn't do it first, it doesn't mean they aren't doing it well.

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