Sunday, July 15, 2018

album review: 'ordinary corrupt human love' by deafheaven

I remember where I was when I reviewed New Bermuda - and when I say that I'm referring to my position with respect to black metal. Sure, I had done some of my research to familiarize myself with the trends in the genre, but I still felt very much like I was on the outside looking in, the hipster music critic using a band like Deafheaven for his inroads into the larger genre but getting scared off when it got too real...

And yet that didn't happen, and while I still wish I could find more black metal records to cover here, I'll freely admit my personal preferences within the genre have deepened and matured in the past three years - not the point where I'll outright dismiss the success Deafheaven has found in taking atmospheric black metal to a larger audience, but to me they've never risen past being just a gateway act. In fact, I'll be blunt: outside of maybe the occasional cut from Sunbather, I haven't really revisited Deafheaven in a long time, and I certainly wouldn't put them up against stronger material from the black metal that's made my year end lists the past three years. But on a similar note, I'm not really about to dismiss Deafheaven either - yeah, frontman George Clarke has not endeared himself to me whatsoever in some of his comments off the mic, but at their best Deafheaven can tap into the soaring crescendos and high points that drew me to atmospheric black metal in the first place, and where New Bermuda stumbled was trying to simultaneously double down on the heaviness and brighter rock segments where the clash felt discordant. So when I heard that Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was heading back in the direction of Sunbather to re-embrace their prettier atmospherics, I was actually looking forward to how this could turn out, especially as the band can be pretty intriguing on a lyrical level as well. So alright, what did we get from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love?

Honestly, the more listens I gave this record, the more I found myself a little baffled by Deafheaven's pivot - because in any other genre, I would call this a more 'commercial' record, but Deafheaven make black metal... or at least I thought they did before this. No, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love falls into a weird place for me, because on the one hand, the band is definitely doubling down on their melodic core, easily making this their most accessible project to date - but on the other hand, I keep feeling I should like this a fair bit more than I do and I can't help but feel that something's missing in the formula that made Sunbather work five years ago.

And make no mistake, this record is definitely going back to that territory - nowhere close to as heavy as New Bermuda and with the most explicit callback being the intro of 'Honeycomb' where the tone and progression is transposed down from 'Please Remember'. But even then, what made Sunbather click were the progressions - the soaring crescendos, the explosive climaxes, where the thunderous intensity of black metal provided that foundation for stunning melody. But here, the progressions are nowhere as pronounced or dramatic, likely a facet of Deafheaven landing on admittedly good melodic motifs fairly early within the piece and then proceeding to hammer them as hard as they possibly can, without the same development of progression you'd typically see in black metal. And that's before you get the pieces that are the most blatant steps into post-rock or damn near a shimmering tone of indie rock that Deafheaven have ever approached - yes, at the end of the day this record will wrench itself back towards thunderous blastbeats and tones that are a little more somber around the edges, and it's not like George Clarke has stopped screaming midway to the back of the mix, but more than ever those flirtations with more sedate Brit-pop progressions feel like more of a seamless feature of their overall sound than a diversion.

And I have to admit, I'm torn on these pieces - yes, they're pretty enough and they certain hit that blissful twinkling note effectively, even with the slightly more melancholic trappings of 'Near' and the Chelsea Wolfe collaboration 'Night People', but I'm also left thinking that these quieter segments should have way more restrained poignancy than they do. A big part of this is the clean vocals - I get why Clarke is placed midway to the back because the overdubbed clean singing like on the outro of 'Canary Yellow' has nowhere close to the stately presence it thinks it does, and when you follow it with 'Near' it's a breathing moment that's not really needed, mostly because the quieter moments don't have their own distinctive melodic progressions for contrast. And look, I'm a huge fan of Chelsea Wolfe and she sounds really good on 'Night People', but she doesn't really have a lot to work with, and considering the lyrical content the song feels like it's missing a climax or any sense of grit or edge to match the environment where she typically thrives. But really, if I'm looking through the instrumentation for the passages that moved me the most, they would probably lie in Kerry McCoy's lead guitar passages and solos that shift off of the tremolo riffing and raise the melody to new heights like across 'You Without End' and 'Worthless Animal' and especially 'Honeycomb', both before and after the transition. And that's the weird thing: when this record sticks with huge, shimmering walls of atmospheric black metal we get genuinely beautiful moments, with Chris Johnson stepping up as the new bassist and Daniel Tracy being consistently excellent on drums, but where you'd think they'd do well in the more atmospheric or prettier post-rock passages they're just not as impressive. Maybe they could afford to be a little more spare and restrained, as I liked the ambient outdoors sounds book-ending the record, maybe that's the added bit of untamed wildness they really need.

Of course, the other part of this conversation is the lyrics and the reason why, while I'm not surprised nor entirely pleased with the results, I get why this album went in a brighter direction: because for the most part, these are love songs. And when I say that, I'm not talking about traditional romanticism so much as our protagonist confronting the elemental emotions of love with skepticism, suspicion, uncertainly, and something damn close to fear. Keep in mind that the majority of the emotions coming off of New Bermuda were a cavalcade of nihilistic, self-destructive 'what now' statements in the face of success, so you can tell that dealing with the sheer, positive ecstasy of love is throwing him for a loop - and I'll say it, it's a natural fit for Deafheaven's sweeter melodies and poetry. I'll admit that part of this is pretty niche - the downcast, sinister black metal nihilist finding his heart caught in his throat on 'Honeycomb' and then leaning into the primal embrace on 'Canary Yellow' is can be genuinely moving if you're in that demographic... but the fact that these moments occur so early and given the band we're dealing with, it's not going to last. The second half of 'Glint' gets clingy to the point of body horror, and by the time we hit 'Night People' the female counterpart very much becomes a downcast shrinking alabaster vessel where ecstasy might have initially been found but will drain away. And this is where the title of this record snaps into relief, because any love found will eventually be recast as animalistic lust that the protagonist must put out of its misery in order to protect a purity he'll never properly attain. And if you're familiar with subtext and coding and some of Deafheaven's leanings in the past towards NSBM this could get a whole lot more uncomfortable, but that's conjecture a large portion of the audience won't care about and the larger issue for me comes in themes: the protagonist has a chance to experience the emotional transcendence of genuine love which could show a major change, but by the end it's all diminished to put him in the same ruthless and nihilistic position from where he started, which only further undercuts all those transcendent moments. 

So in the end... look, it's a step back in the right direction, but it feels oddly compromised to me, that Deafheaven have settled into a comfort zone that shows them not really taking the experimental step they could, which might be the reason why I'm underwhelmed by the post-rock passages they do try. And when you tack on romantic framing around some genuinely unsettling NSBM 'preserve the purity of white women' text and subtext - and it's sadly not just around 'Worthless Animal' - it's harder to recommend, especially when it doesn't help the overall thematic arc. (EDITORIAL NOTE - okay, upon greater research it was made known to this critic that thematically this critic was not aligned with the band when it came to subtext, given that they were perceiving the album overall as a celebration of mundanity of modern life and its transcendent power... which can be a very valid interpretation of subtext, even if the 'protection of white feminine purity' coding is still very much there and black metal still has issues with NSBM. And providing Deafheaven isn't lying with this - and they could well be to infiltrate a larger market and there has been incidents with this band in the past - it still doesn't resolve the overarching nihilism and if anything further undercuts the structure of songs like 'Worthless Animal' (which they have described as a retributive kill for someone who abuses the homeless, which plays into a lot of unfortunate 'nobility in poverty' coding and only feels tenuously connected with the first half of the song...). In short, this critic is leaving in this extended editorial note to prove the validity of that check and balance process)

But on the other hand most black metal fans couldn't give two shits about the lyrics and are just here for the melodies, and those are indeed really damn strong, so on that basis, I'm giving it a 7/10, but I won't recommend it - it's black metal and pretty niche anyway. It's better than New Bermuda, not better than Sunbather, and probably deserves to be a little less critically beloved, but if you're curious... well, now you know what's there.

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