Friday, February 10, 2017

album review: 'all these constant nights' by deaf havana

So I think I've gone on the record a number of times that I don't really care for post-hardcore music. It's not really my scene, the clash between screams and melodic singing can feel awkward and not always compliment the riffs, and I've also had the misfortune to see a lot of terrible bands come out of the genre as it mutated into something far uglier in the latter half of the 2000s and early 2010s. It wasn't my scene to begin with, and thus you can bet I had some extremely mixed feelings preparing myself for the English group Deaf Havana, particularly their 2009 debut that, hey, wouldn't you know, was produced by Matt O'Grady of You Me At Six, another group that I didn't really care for and yet would have never have covered if it wasn't for Patreon!

But then something happened - their screaming vocalist Ryan Mellor left the band for personal reasons after that first album, which resulted in a hard pivot towards pop punk and power pop. Their sound got rootsier along the way, and what resulted was a very Jimmy Eat World-esque stab at rock, only with more interesting and intricate guitarwork and tighter basslines, which I'd consider a net positive. And for once, critics agreed, throwing a fair amount of praise their way for that 2011 project Fools And Worthless Liars, which I actually happened to like a decent bit. The pivot and overwritten but earnest lyrics actually reminded me a little of Frank Turner in a good way - frontman James Veck-Gilodi didn't have that kind of charisma, but you could definitely see him on that path, especially as a songwriter on tracks like 'Hunstanton Pier'. Coupled with a penchant to take some borderline progressive instrumental risks - and how their third album Old Souls dove into even more rough-edged material, even pulling from soul and blues to augment an already strong power pop formula - I had a lot of reason to dig into All These Constant Nights and expect real quality. So did we get it?

I'm of a few minds about this project. On the one hand, you could easily make the argument that on a musical level it's less interesting or compelling than their last two releases - All These Constant Nights is darker and heavier and less outwardly experimental in its choice of tones and sounds and melodies, I can see some people calling it more of the same. But on the other hand if you delve into the lyrics this might just be one of Deaf Havana's most personal records to date... and yet the more I've thought about it, the more I'm unsure it managed to push them into true greatness. In other words, I'm definitely convinced this record is on the cusp of being really damn great, but the question of whether it tips over into excellence is a lot trickier.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, the place where the majority of critics thus far have come down pretty hard on Deaf Havana - and it's not like they're entirely wrong here either. Because make no mistake, this is meat-and-potatoes rock music, from the array of aggressive guitar tones that range from dank rattling to a fuzzier brand of muscle to acoustic, to the more aggressive and complex drumming that yes, is occasionally a tad too close to the front of the mix but not often. Hell, while there are some moments that are audibly synthetic - there's no way the drums that open 'Pretty Low' weren't coming from Pro-Tools or at the very least polished to that point - but for the most part this record embraces a solid command of rough-edged atmosphere and melodic balance that does it a lot of credit, from well-balanced prominent bass harmonies to the welcome guitar solos to even a few new wave-esque grooves on songs like 'Trigger' and 'England' to balance out against the borderline pop punk side of 'Fever' or 'Sing'. I'm not going to deny the broader atmospherics on songs like 'L.O.V.E.' do drag a bit - particularly on the outro - but the more spacious tones and refocus on sharper melodies and hooks reminds me a little more of acts like mid-period Poets of the Fall, albeit not quite as heavy. Of course, the fact that this record does play to some easier hooks can lead to some distressing melodic similarities - the verses of 'Happiness' share almost an identical groove to 'Colder Weather' by The Zac Brown Band, but given that the Zac Brown Band ripped off the song themselves for 'Sweet Annie' an album later and given 'Happiness' goes in a very different direction for the hook and tone, I'm inclined to let them off with a warning.

And that's the thing, the hooks really are that moody and explosive, or at the very least melodically complex enough to earn the atmosphere - the multi-tracked howling of 'Ashes, Ashes' coasts off a great piano post-chorus, the more complex bass and drums groove gives 'Trigger' a fascinating transition to a conventional but potent hook, the softer touch of 'Pretty Low' steps into the hazier, multi-tracked harmonies of great Poets of the Fall songs before the roaring fuzzy solo, the triumphant, acoustic-backed roar of 'Sing' that is desperately needed near the end of the record, and pretty much all of 'St. Paul', from the hollow liquidity of the guitar tones that reminds me of an 80s power ballad to the perfect lyrical cadence to the great drum-and-bass guitar-backed swell of the hook that knows enough to balance its melody and tempo. Now granted, a lot of credit has to go to frontman James Veck-Gilodi, who may not have begun his career as a vocalist with a lot of dramatic range but really has turned out surprisingly versatile, capable of down-playing moody bitterness to earnest sadness to the raw intensity that Deaf Havana seemed to shy away from on their last two records.

But to get into that, we need to talk about tone and themes - and here's the thing, even though Deaf Havana began in post-hardcore that trended towards emo at the time, especially in its subject matter, the writing tended to avoid the whinging that puts me off that material, mostly by a refocus of the blame and responsibility. So when you hear that the band is tapping towards more introspective and sullen subject matter, I can imagine that some of you would think this band went back towards emo... except our frontman is a fair bit smarter than that and it's what gives All These Constant Nights its startling edge. Of course there's a bad breakup at the root of the story, but Deaf Havana's framing shows a brutal frankness about the situation that places equal if not the majority of the blame on the frontman, and for plenty of justifiable reasons, most prominently alcohol. In fact, outside of Macklemore's most understated work or Yelawolf's 'Empty Bottles' or Jason Eady's stunning record Daylight & Dark, Deaf Havana get to the roots of the numb, dehumanizing of alcoholism in a way that's almost too close for comfort. And when you factor in a lack of solid home for both him and his girlfriend from the other side of the world, exhaustion, creative burnout, and borderline crippling self-awareness that's driven by depression, I can imagine that this record will resonate for a lot of people - hell, catch me at the wrong moment in the past two years and I might include myself in that category. And that self-awareness doesn't just give the record a restless set of teeth, but also makes our frontman much more of a relatable and sympathetic character, not just in the plain admittance of his own mistakes but also how society doesn't help the situation, from the records he plays on 'Trigger' that encourage him to stew in it to the growing emptiness as he tries to force a smile on 'Happiness' to the lingering feeling that it's all just his fault on 'Pretty Low'. That's why the honest confessions as he tries to put old feelings aside on 'St. Paul' have real resonance, or why his mingled jealousy and renewed conviction on 'Sing' feels righteous - even when faced with colleagues or friends who have succeeded and moved past him, he's still fought his own battle and there's relevance and power to that. And like Green Day did with 'Whatshername' on American Idiot, he wonders if that relationship still lingers in her mind, or if there is any remnant of his presence in the world and those darker times, which would be so easy to forget but still holds something for him all the same.

Now I'm not going to say the arc and writing is perfect - songs like 'Fever' and 'Like A Ghost' could afford to go a bit deeper, and 'England' feels awkward in its contempt for both his hometown and his own whiteness, which felt like a lyrical dead-end and is probably the weakest track here. But overall, there's a real straightforward, hard-hitting core that works with the instrumentation. Sure, maybe not as experimental, but the frank personal detail and strong hooks ground a solid formula in great territory, and for me... I'm thinking a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're into this brand of rock. In short, Deaf Havana's All These Constant Nights may be a pretty bleak listen, but between smart, well-constructed writing, great framing, and really solid hooks, I think I'm going to keep coming back.

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