Premature Evaluation: Deafheaven New Bermuda

Premature Evaluation: Deafheaven New Bermuda

It was 2013, Thursday heading into Memorial Day Weekend, and we were standing in the rain in a parking lot in Baltimore. This was Maryland Deathfest, opening day, and there were maybe a thousand of us there, maybe more. Pallbearer had just finished their set; Cobalt were gonna play a little later — and after Cobalt, Bolt Thrower — but we were between sets, waiting in line to buy beer. I was talking to this guy I know, this guy who runs a label that releases records by underground extreme-metal bands. We were talking about Deafheaven; the band’s second album, Sunbather, wasn’t even out yet, but we’d both had advances for a little while at that point — I’d already published enthusiastic reviews of the album’s singles, “Dream House” and the title track — and both of us knew it was going to be a pretty big deal. I like to talk about music with anyone, of course, but this is a guy who really knows his shit, whose opinion matters to a lot of people, so I was especially curious to hear his take. This is what he said:

He liked Sunbather, he told me, but more than anything, it made him excited about where Deafheaven would go next. This might sound dismissive to you, as Sunbather was still three weeks from even being released, but it made perfect sense to me. If your livelihood is based on identifying some sort of potential in young bands — their potential for artistic growth, for media interest, for audience engagement, for sales — your ear must at some point become trained to listen for something beyond the music you’re actually hearing. You’re constantly projecting futures in a shifting, uncertain, unusually fickle market. So I asked him: What did the future hold for Deafheaven?

He saw them tightening their songs — Sunbather comprised seven tracks, averaging more than 8 minutes each — delivering more hooks in more-economical structures. He saw them incorporating clean vocals, maybe female vocals. Sunbather was already pretty accessible relative to most extreme metal, but he saw them going further away from metal, further toward pop. And this excited him.

I should point out that the music released by this guy’s label is decidedly not accessible; his own tastes don’t run toward pop. He wasn’t cynically predicting a cash-in; he was just assessing what he saw as Deafheaven’s strengths and drawing a blueprint for the band to further optimize those strengths. And hearing his thoughts, I agreed with him. It seemed like a great plan! I was excited too. Of course, neither of us could have predicted that the exact blueprint he’d drawn up in that very moment would, less than a year later, be employed almost to the letter by the French black metal band Alcest, perhaps Deafheaven’s single greatest influence to that point. We couldn’t have predicted that the Alcest album in question, 2014’s Shelter, would wind up sounding more or less exactly like Slowdive’s catalog in aggregate — not a bad development, per se, but a decidedly unexciting one. We couldn’t have predicted anything, really. Well, we knew Sunbather was going to be a pretty big deal. We knew that much.

New Bermuda is almost the exact opposite of the album we were imagining back at MDF 2013. It comprises five songs ranging in length from 8-and-half minutes to 10-and-a-quarter minutes. It is much heavier than Sunbather, much gnarlier. It is more metal, less pop. Not only are there no clean vocals to speak of, the vocals on display are frequently uglier and harsher than they were on Sunbather. On that album, Deafheaven frontman George Clarke sang primarily in a Burzum-esque black-metal hiss, a style of screaming that can assume an almost gentle texture if approached purely as a sound rather than a human voice. On New Bermuda, though, Clarke is rasping more, and roaring more, too. His vocals are more clipped, more abrasive, more halting, with harder curls and sharper edges. There are points during the songs “Luna” and “Come Back” where it sounds like his vocal line is being doubled, with one of the tracks sort of pitch-shifted or something to give his delivery an especially inhuman feel — a trick made famous by Deicide singer Glen Benton on that band’s ultra-classic 1990 self-titled debut album. On New Bermuda closer “Gifts For The Earth,” Clarke sings in a grotesque goblin-like croak, and does so over a brisk Yo La Tengo-ish guitar strum, an incongruity that made me feel a little nauseous the first couple times I heard it.

That sort of incongruity is at the center of Deafheaven’s sound: that juxtaposition of textures, rhythms, and tones. On Sunbather, it was smoother, more streamlined — often mirroring the vaults and dives of widescreen-style post-rock bands such as Explosions In The Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor — but on New Bermuda, it’s more pronounced, more discordant. Deafheaven songs can still be divided into “pretty parts” and “heavy parts,” but the pretty parts on New Bermuda are especially sweet and gentle, while the heavy parts are often twisted and violent instead of being simply loud. Those components can be broken down even further, too. On the heavy side, there are, at turns, ultra-fast palm-muted thrash riffs, death-metal double-bass drum assaults and blast beats, anthemic little NWOBHM licks, and tremolo-picked black-metal guitars. On the pretty side, the music occasionally recalls ambient, or alt-rock, or dream-pop, or slow-core. And it’s all held together by glorious, skyward-reaching bombastic emo ballast: sections that are both pretty and heavy.

Compositionally, New Bermuda represents an accomplishment of enormous ambition, and for that, almost sole credit is due Deafheaven guitarist/songwriter Kerry McCoy, whose own playing has never been better. But McCoy’s compositions are animated and elevated by an incredible supporting cast: bassist Stephen Lee Clark, guitarist Shiv Mehra, and drummer Dan Tracy. (Tracy’s work here is probably worthy of its own essay; there aren’t many drummers in the world today playing at his current level.) I can’t hear a single bum note on New Bermuda — except for the intentionally bum note that comes during the piano outro on album opener “Brought To The Water” — and I can hear every note, which is pretty impressive on its own, considering the music’s dense clamor. The album was produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered by Jack Shirley, who was also behind the boards on Sunbather, and whose contributions here can’t be overstated.

New Bermuda feels like a courageous evolutionary step for Deafheaven. It doesn’t eliminate the elements that made Sunbather accessible to listeners whose musical vocabulary/diet might not traditionally include metal, but it does obscure those elements behind (or within) an aggressively metallic din. But it’s not pandering to genre purists, either: By veering so hard, so frequently, into such delicate, idyllic, serenely sun-dappled pastures, it threatens to alienate anyone who might come to the album hoping for a more stereotypically “metal” Deafheaven. I don’t think it’s trolling anyone: I think it’s employing a vast spectrum of sounds to deliver some heart-stopping and/or -starting songs; I think it’s a devastating display of ability resulting in an exactingly orchestrated, gluttonous revelry of sound. But I think some people are gonna feel trolled just the same.

* * *

Here’s a little bit of behind-the-scenes-at-Stereogum insight for you: A couple weeks ago, I published a short (um, long) essay about Deafheaven’s supposed appeal to “People Who Don’t Like Metal,” coinciding with the release of New Bermuda’s second single, “Come Back.” That essay began its life, though, as an early draft of the review you’re reading now. However, it was only after I’d written, like, 1,200 words that it occurred to me: No one gives a shit. I mean, some people give a shit, obviously — I give a shit — but to define or discuss Deafheaven on those terms is incredibly reductive and obtuse. Being “metal” is not itself a virtue. Still, I liked what I’d written enough to not trash it outright, and when the opportunity arose for me to repurpose that work, I took it. Soon after it was published, though, my friend Aaron wrote to me, saying: “Pretty sure you’re never again allowed to write about whether Deafheaven are metal.”

He was right. Frankly, once I’m done with this review, I’ll be happy to never again write about Deafheaven in any capacity: Somebody else at Stereogum can take over the Deafheaven beat after this. But before I go, I gotta do one last thing. So let’s get to it.

I think there’s an impression that Deafheaven skeptics are either maladjusted 16-year-old dirtbags or battle-jacketed middle-aged red-meat purists anonymously trashing the band in forums and comments sections in order to assert their own metal bonafides. I’m sure those people exist, but when I encounter opposition to Deafheaven, those aren’t the people I’m talking to. The people I’m talking to are highly educated adults with progressive political and cultural views, people who work in the arts, people who live in New York City. And these people happen to also be insanely passionate metal obsessives with sophisticated, informed, detailed opinions on the genre. So I’ve started asking these people what it is, exactly, that they don’t like about Deafheaven. I’m not going to identify any of them by name — because they’re my friends, and they weren’t being interviewed or anything, we were just talking — but I’m providing some handy illustrations to give you a clearer picture of our conversations. I’m not clowning these guys in the least — I take their opinions very seriously, I know they would all DESTROY me at metal trivia, and I’m confident they’re smarter than me in basically every respect — I’m just tired of seeing Deafheaven skeptics presented as trollish, troglodytic strawmen. And I think, too, that this helps me to discuss other aspects of New Bermuda in greater detail, to wrestle with some criticisms that I might not have thought to address without their assistance.

So again, the question I’m posing to these people, my friends — people who hang out at St. Vitus and read Michel Houellebecq in the original French and get pissed off when an episode of Radiolab is polluted with a Liturgy song — is:

“What is it, exactly, that you don’t like about Deafheaven?”

“I find their music to be emotionally manipulative, and I’m offended by that.”

These quotes are verbatim, by the way, or as close to verbatim as I can recall; they’re 100-percent representative of our actual conversations, in any case. Still, these specific lines are admittedly presented out of context, and I invite all these people to flesh out their arguments in the comments below, or face-to-face the next time we’re in the same room, or to just punch me really hard in the arm, if they want. Anyway: This conversation occurred on the corner of 5th Avenue and 30th Street in Manhattan, and my friend was talking about Sunbather: its surging, swooning grandeur; its slow builds and breathtaking peaks. He was equating the techniques used by Deafheaven with techniques used by emo and post-rock bands who employ similar dynamics to achieve … I’m not sure, honestly. To echo or validate the intense, hormonally charged feelings experienced by teenagers? To lend gravity to especially dramatic moments in bad movies? I didn’t press him too hard on this because it seemed to me a very peculiar criticism, a personal reaction. I would imagine most music is written with the intention of evoking some response from the listener, and while Deafheaven were perhaps employing unsubtle means on Sunbather, I couldn’t question their motives, especially when their end goals were unclear. They were emotionally manipulating listeners into … liking their music? Again, I’m not sure; I didn’t press this one.

I will say that New Bermuda seems less susceptible to this particular line of criticism than did Sunbather, because New Bermuda scales back considerably on the surging, swooning grandeur. It’s still there, though. For what it’s worth, I know a lot of people who claim to experience an intense emotional reaction when they listen to Deafheaven, but for me, their music stirs absolutely no emotions whatsoever. For me, listening to Deafheaven is an entirely physical experience, a visceral experience. They don’t make me feel joyous or despondent; they make me feel like I’m flying.

“It just doesn’t feel … authentic to me.”

I really need to stress here that I’m not using this forum to make fun of my friends. In every one of these cartoons, I’m the other guy: the other opinionated know-it-all metal snob. I’m the asshole here. Anyway this conversation occurred in an apartment on the corner of Bowery and 1st Street, on the second floor of the building next to the John Varvatos shop that used to house CBGB. I was playing a couple songs from New Bermuda for my friend, and this response came in reaction to the album’s second track, “Luna.” He liked the song’s extended and extremely punishing thrash/death-metal opening verses, but recoiled when it expanded into something more open, more melodic.

“It sounds like emo,” he said.

“I like emo!” I said.

“No, I do too, but … I don’t like the way they combine the emo stuff and the metal stuff. I can’t lose myself in either sound, and I can’t imagine wanting to attempt to lose myself in the greater whole. It’s just not for me. It’s just not authentic.”

Authenticity is a strange currency, a strange concept: undefinable, yet essential. There are many paradigms of authenticity that reject Deafheaven: The band’s agnostic, all-consuming approach to music necessarily blends potentially incompatible influences. It could seem random; it could even seem willfully jarring: Skeptics might hear the closing section of “Gifts For The Earth” — openly aping Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” — and wonder how it squares with the song’s opening section (the goblin-croak/Yo La Tengo-guitar part I was telling you about up top). They might further wonder how any of it squares with the massive Thor’s hammer of a riff that lands between those two points and demolishes everything in its radius. That’s not unreasonable. I happen to love these disparate sounds individually, and I also love hearing them pieced together as they are here — I hear a continuity, a logic. But I don’t find myself analyzing it; I find myself carried away.

It is worth noting, though, that after we listened to New Bermuda, I put on Anareta, the forthcoming album from the Philadelphia-based death-metal trio Horrendous. And hearing this, my friend said:

“See, this sounds authentic to me.”

Now, I love Horrendous, and I really fucking love Anareta. I’ve been listening to that album almost every day since it arrived in my inbox; it hits my pleasure receptors unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. But Horrendous’ music specifically and solely references a handful of death-metal subgenres that came to prominence in about 1989, had peaked by 1991, and had pretty much disappeared by 1993. Those were the genre’s classic years, and while they’re now decades behind us, the music played in that style still somehow conveys authenticity even though many of its current practitioners had yet to be born when those sounds were new.

“I don’t hate Deafheaven. The only thing I hate about Deafheaven is their lyrics.”

You know, I’m never gonna hear the end of this. Actually, that’s the best-case scenario. Worst-case is: I never hear from any of these guys again. I’m betting on them having a sense of humor here, but you really never know. Metal people, I tell ya. So okay: Here we are on a bench, in Madison Square Park, weekday, lunch hour. And this particular friend has more than once denounced Deafheaven’s lyrics, but in this particular case, I think he was primarily referring to this note from Clarke, included in the press release accompanying New Bermuda’s lead single “Brought To The Water” — a song that, Clarke said:

…evokes feelings that come with uprooting and throwing oneself into the complacent, monotonous routine of adulthood.

That is not itself a lyric, but it is representative of Clarke’s hyper-realist approach to lyric-writing. And I think it’s fair to say that Clarke’s lyrics might be read as a bit … precious? Pseudo-literary? Self-serious? We’ll get back to that in a sec; before we do, I want to point out two things:

1. This criticism was coming from a person who has expressed tremendous fondness for an extant underground death-metal band whose sole lyrical theme is an elaborate self-constructed mythology about gigantic, malicious, technologically advanced slugs from outer space. They have three albums (and counting!) dedicated to this subject. And that band — they’re called Slugdge, btw — are truly, legitimately great. But being a Slugdge fan means you’re maybe punting when it comes to talking seriously about lyrics.

2. I mean … you’re hung up on Deafheaven’s lyrics? Really? Even if Deafheaven’s lyrics were nauseatingly, embarrassingly cloying — and they’re not — YOU CAN’T MAKE OUT A SINGLE FUCKING WORD WHEN LISTENING TO THESE SONGS. I’m not exaggerating. Without the assistance of a lyric sheet, I can almost — almost — distinguish a single line on New Bermuda: It comes at the apex of “Luna” and I think Clarke is saying either “suburbia” (which would fit well within his milieu) or “so burn me up” (which would be pretty metal). It’s likely he’s saying something else altogether.

I don’t care. Honestly. I love the way his voice sounds, and I don’t care what he’s trying to communicate. In the abstract, I’m pleased that he’s doing something different — metal needs lyricists who do something different — but I’d be lying if I said it mattered to me. When you’ve been listening to this kind of music long enough, you’re basically just happy when these guys aren’t singing about white-supremacist shit or nazi shit or whatever. No more nazis, man. Enough with the nazis.

I will say, though, that New Bermuda’s most inscrutable moment is also its most verbal: It’s during the album’s epic, multi-part centerpiece, “Baby Blue,” and it’s not Clarke’s voice or words you’re hearing. It’s a recording of a robotic-sounding woman reporting traffic delays on the George Washington Bridge … and I don’t get it at all. I can’t help thinking that it’s completely fucking pointless, that it’s there only because it sounds cool. And I can’t help finding it funny that an album of so many cool sounds falls shortest when one of those sounds comes in the form of clearly audible words.

I won’t say any of my above-mentioned friends are wrong for not liking Deafheaven, but I do find their reasons for disliking the band to be a bit arbitrary. The most convincing argument against Deafheaven that I’ve heard comes from the venerable metal critic Adrien Begrand, who gave Sunbather an unfavorable review upon its release, and his negative reaction was spurred mostly by the vocal-instrumental interplay. He loved McCoy’s work, but strongly disliked Clarke’s vocal contributions, which he likened to: “the aural equivalent of a bratty 2-year-old smearing finger paints on a Renoir.” I disagree — to me, it’s all part of the bigger picture, the aural equivalent of a Francis Bacon, maybe — but I can understand that response, and it suggests to me an insurmountable, irreconcilable divide. If you don’t like Clarke’s vocals — even if you just didn’t like the way Clarke’s vocals engaged with the music behind him on Sunbather — you probably won’t like New Bermuda, and you’ll probably never like Deafheaven.

* * *

All these words (and cartoons!) and still, I haven’t addressed the question you want me to address. That is, this question:

“But is it better than Sunbather?”

So … okay. Sunbather is one of my favorite albums of the last 10 years. And my favorite moment on Sunbather is its final three and a half minutes, the cascading climax that arrives at the end of the 11-minute-plus album closer, “The Pecan Tree.” That section, right there, is like a waterfall, and you’re standing at its base, showered in this sound; it just washes over you, pounding your shoulders and skull, cleansing you, invigorating you, causing your blood to rush like quicksilver and your nerve endings to feel shot through with electricity. It’s a sensation you wish would last forever, and it feels like it almost does last forever. It’s one touched-by-God riff that repeats for the length of an entire pop song, closing out an album of tremendous power and grace. It’s a miraculous piece of music — an audacious, sublime, and stunning moment.

New Bermuda doesn’t have that. It has moments that are equally transporting, equally massive — hell, maybe more transporting, maybe even bigger still — but they arrive with less warning and disappear almost instantly. New Bermuda is a better album for not attempting to replicate that moment in “The Pecan Tree,” but perhaps an inherently worse album for simply not owning that moment in the first place. It’s not just that moment, either: Where Sunbather was like hang gliding or smooth slaloming on packed powder, New Bermuda is like an especially fast, steep, terrifying, and turbulent roller coaster. That’s not meant to suggest that one experience is superior to the other; they’re merely different experiences delivering many of the same sensations: velocity, excitement, weightlessness, air.

New Bermuda is a more complex album than Sunbather, and I find its complexity to be riveting. I’ve already admitted that being “metal” is not itself a virtue, but I can’t deny that I find New Bermuda’s searing metal edges to be totally fucking thrilling — not for their novelty, but because they add tension, horsepower, and heft to Deafheaven’s music. And also because Deafheaven aren’t using these sounds in familiar ways: As they’re recontextualized, they’re also revitalized, almost alien. These timeless tropes feel somehow new.

So I don’t know if New Bermuda is better than Sunbather in much the same way I don’t know if Master Of Puppets is better than Ride The Lightning. I do know that those Metallica albums have been a part of my life every single day for the past three decades, and they’ll be a part of my life every single day till I die. I also know, though, that Metallica had only six or so years of being that Metallica: that blinding, untouchable, life-changing, world-altering nuclear force. They released Kill ‘Em All in ’83 and …And Justice For All in ’88, and for those six years, they were the best band on the planet. And I was just a kid who came in at the tail end, but I remember people pretending Metallica were something less than that, or other bands were something more. Man, I remember people trying to tell me that, like, Exodus’ Fabulous Disaster was a better record than Justice; I remember people saying Metallica sold out when they made the “One” video, like that was some unforgivable betrayal. Everyone had to be cooler and harder than everyone else, so we argued about a bunch of dumb shit instead of just standing there, awed, watching the universe realign itself before our very eyes. We couldn’t see it clearly in the moment, and before we recognized what was happening, the moment was over.

Deafheaven have been this Deafheaven for three or so years now: from Sunbather in 2013 to New Bermuda today. It’s easy to dismiss them or devalue them; it’s easier still to take them for granted. You can do any of those things, but take it from me, you’d be making a mistake. You’d be making a mistake if you listened to New Bermuda and only looked to the past, only heard the new album in comparison to Sunbather. You’d be making a mistake, too, if you listened to New Bermuda and only looked to the future, only used the new album to help predict what LP4 could sound like, where they’ll go from here, what they might yet become.

When everything is happening, it can seem like bands are just there and they’ll always be there, like their timelines extend endlessly in both directions. But bands that burn as hot as Deafheaven are burning right now? Those bands tend to immolate, or explode, or melt into sad, disfigured blobs that bear only a ghost of a resemblance to the beautiful, spellbinding gods we remember (or with whose legends and heroics we are endlessly regaled). It might be a long fucking time before you see another band catch fire like this, breathe fire like this. Cherish it, because it will one day be extinguished. It will end. Cherish this.

New Bermuda is out 10/2 via Anti-. Pre-order it here.

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