The musicianship on New Bermuda is far ahead of what the band has shown to date.
The boundary-drawing that has typified the backlash around Deafheaven has generally not been worth the many hundreds of words dedicated to it, other than to note how funny it is to think there are people out there who genuinely believe a band is exploiting metal for commercial and critical gain. In some respects, however, the observations of those used to heavy music were correct: Sunbather owed as much, if not more, to noise pop as to metal, and the increasing harmony and accessibility of the record relative to the quintet’s debut suggested an increasing move toward broader appeal. Which is to say that the abrupt left-turn into outright metal of various subgenres in New Bermuda is just about the most surprising move the band could make, thwarting the expectations of cynics and fans alike.
“Brought to the Water” eases out of the gate to the sound of distantly tolling bells and faint drone, but once the guitars burst into the mix, the track immediately announces itself as the band’s heaviest song yet. Blastbeat drums furiously coil around smoky doom riffs, consolidating the shimmering and sludgy elements at either end of the band’s spectrum into one cohesive sound. It’s instantly identifiable as Deafheaven, yet the track explicitly incorporates several forms of metal barely hinted at on prior records. From the half-black, half-doom metal opening, the song moves into old-school thrash that mixes the ragged edge of early Metallica and Morbid Angel with the progressive sweep of prime Megadeth. Lyrically, the song confirms the band’s songwriting to consist primarily of fragments of observational misery, and as ever you’re better off not bothering trying to decipher George Clarke’s rasp without a lyric sheet. But one line offers a kind of mission statement for the album: “A multiverse of fuchsia and violet surrenders to blackness now.”
The fuchsia and violet in question could equally refer to the band’s erstwhile tendency toward washed-out bliss and aspirational lyrics, both of which are blown apart by the rest of the record. Where Sunbather overflowed with dreams of being a black metal band that somehow made enough scratch to escape the paycheck-to-paycheck life, “Luna” is narrated from Howard Hughes-esque seclusion in comfort, staring out from the porch of an imagined apocalypse to see “the mirage of water ascending from the asphalt.” Compositionally, the band deepens its sense of interplay, with Daniel Tracy taking point with sidewinding drums that regularly step outside the narrow, pummeling range he has enjoyed so far. Jazzy fills and breakdowns galore flirt with the kind of ragged progressive metal of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor, and his own fluidity brings out the best in the guitarists, as palm-muted riffs flow into delicately picked lines before lapsing into tremolo waves. And just as the track starts to drift off into an outro filled with Sunbather bliss, it abruptly leaps right back into the fray at double-time before scaling to an even higher peak, before dropping into a valley of haunting piano. Then, for good measure, it jumps back up into lighters-in-the-air riffing as Clarke rips his throat out for his most scathing assessment of suburbia, his voice as much a part of the overwhelming composition as the instruments.
In general, the musicianship on New Bermuda is so far ahead of what the band has shown to date that it threatens to retrospectively make the achievements of Road to Judah and Sunbather obsolete. “Baby Blue” devotes an extended intro to the kind of delicately phrased licks and fills that regularly dot the preambles to sweeping epics by the likes of Dream Theater and Symphony X, and it even erupts into a melodic solo from Kerry McCoy, a soaring number that is sharp enough to show off his talents without lapsing into the kind of tedious fretboard masturbation that sinks prog-metal. Soon, the band syncs back up with a climbing riff that eventually settles into a mid-tempo Slayer number. The slowed tempos offer the chance to hear how well the band plays off each other, with McCoy and Shiv Mehra contrasting their guitar parts over Stephen Clark’s solid bass and Tracy’s chameleon percussion. Clarke’s voice fills any available space, with his hiss mixing with Tracy’s cymbals and growls working down with the bass. The band is so on-point that they can even make a radical departure with the blatantly alternative “Gifts for the Earth,” all bright riffs and ‘90s breakdowns, and still pass it off as metal.
Everything comes to a head on the album’s penultimate, and best, track, “Come Back.” A tranquil organ intro drops into an abyss of noise from which McCoy’s guitar edges out with a calmer riff, a guide through the hell of sound. Nearly four minutes in, the band hits a sustained note they ride down to a moderate tempo and the most spacious sound on the record, each instrument separated from each other so that even the chugging riffs sound remote and fragile. That nearly three minutes of the song is an extended, lovely guitar outro with bent slides and western twang is a testament to a band that can now do anything. People overstated the singularity of an album like Sunbather, ignoring what innate bedfellows bedroom shoegaze and underground black metal made, sonically and lyrically. But New Bermuda, with its perfectly indicative cover of flowers growing on the face of a morose figure made out of depressive sludge, incorporates such a dizzying variety of modes within a fundamentally secure sound that it is this, not the band’s second LP, that feels like Deafheaven’s breakthrough. In a way, they recall Dethklok, the cartoon death metal superstars of the Adult Swim series “Metalocalypse.” That show takes its band’s popularity as its core joke, but if Deafheaven will likely never play a big stage outside of festivals, they do posit a world where the notion of extremely heavy metal as pop is not farfetched, where blast beats, buzzing guitars and the shredded shriek of raging loneliness could have every bit the broad appeal to arty kids that a Smiths single could.