Deafheaven reaches for the light, marking their latest album as their most engaging, thought-provoking effort to date.
Ever since exploding into acclaim with their 2013 sophomore effort Sunbather, Deafheaven have been reacting to that album and its polarizing reception. Alternately hailed and scorned for bringing black metal techniques into accessible indie rock, the San Francisco group had to contend with being either modern spokesmen for a genre they only incorporated into a wider sound, or the worst poseurs to ever live. Their follow-up, New Bermuda, seemed tailor-made to silence their snottiest critics under a wall of sound, with the black metal tremolos, blast beats and yelps cranked up past its predecessor’s loudest moments.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love likewise sounds like a response to Sunbather, but it comes across as the band making peace with their place in the current rock landscape, no longer concerned with proving their wares to strident heshers. The result is the band’s least heavy record, with only first single “Honeycomb” harking back to the aggro churn of New Bermuda. The track is classic Deafheaven, a gargantuan track that maintains a brick wall of tremolo-picked noise that nonetheless manages to sidewind through surprising layers of musical sophistication in a way that never slips into prog excess. But compare this to the preceding track, album opener “You Without End.” Cautiously rolling out on a loping piano riff joined by brittle stabs of clean guitar, “You Without End” sounds like a laid-back indie jam more than blackened shoegaze. In fact, when frontman George Clarke’s trademark rasp enters the mix, fading up as if emerging from the underworld, it produces a wave of cognitive dissonance. Yet as Kerry McCoy’s guitar starts to curlicue up into the atmosphere, a strange synergy ties everything together. Deafheaven were not the first to mix black metal various forms of indie rock, but they perhaps more than anyone understood how both genres were linked by disaffect and anomie. Though Clarke hisses out a miniature horror movie (even referencing Lovecraftian shoggoths), his vision is one of suburban hell, a topic that would fit just as easily in a Pavement song that just happens to blend sunny rock and howling rage.
“You Without End” runs nearly eight minutes, though that places in it the bottom half of this seven-song outing in terms of length. Similar to the band’s breakthrough, the album intersperses its more elaborate tracks with shorter, simpler tracks, but as in the opener, these songs are far more fleshed out than the noodly interludes of Sunbather. They also show just how far the band is stretching on this release. “Near,” for example, could almost pass for a Beach House song circa-Teen Dream, with McCoy and Shiv Mehra weaving their guitars delicately around each other over Clarke’s clean-sung chants. It would be a complete departure for the band if not for the lyrics, which mainly consist of a repetitive, haunting chant of “Thought I saw you there/ Wishing you were near” that coalesces Clarke’s angst into its briefest, most plaintive summary.
The best tracks, though, are the extended, cascading epics, songs that punch past the 10-minute mark with ease and find Deafheaven stretching their chops like never before. “Glint” almost sounds like Television gone shoegaze, as McCoy and Mehra dance around each other, bridged in their disparate explorations by drummer Daniel Tracy, who threads surprisingly supple, complex fills throughout the album. Psychedelic guitar effects slowly build the track until it explodes after three minutes into trademark blackgaze that is then put through a ringer of time changes, from possibly the band’s fastest blastbeats yet to a breakdown where McCoy and Mehra briefly turn into a twin-guitar behemoth redolent of trad-metal titans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. That same approach filters into closer “Worthless Animal,” which ends the album with alternately muscular and chiming lines.
Parsing Clarke’s lyrics is always a questionable prospect; his snapshots of melodramatic, enraged sorrow are, on paper, captivatingly impressionistic but in practice can be nearly impossible to discern. Here, however, his vocals are brought into such focus that one or two glances at a lyric sheet during a song can clear up any lingering doubt as to what he’s shrieking. His work on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is his best yet, lucid yet increasingly ambitious in laying out stories, and his passion only enhances the music. He and the rest of the band reach arguably their highest peak yet with “Canary Yellow,” which cascades into being before the requisite Deafheaven eruption, only to splinter and reform at a shocking rate. McCoy and Mehra never seem to settle on a riff for more than a few seconds, constantly folding in and out of motifs that roar and soar in equal measure. Tracy finds the throughline for all of this and manages to play hard and delicate at the same time, anticipating each shift the guitarists make and finding the logic that led to it. All the while, Clarke etches out evocative glimpses of a romance that escalates in his ragged, desperate devotion until he collapses in shrieks of choking on his lover’s blood. Somehow, despite shrieking about this like a loosened demon over sheets of metal guitar, Clarke doesn’t sound violent, or at least not externally so. Rather, he captures the death-drive intensity of rare love, an obliterating desire to combat the feelings of lonely horror that pervade the rest of the disc and indeed Deafheaven’s discography. It’s a garish form of hope, but it’s hope nonetheless, and the unorthodox manner in which the band reaches for the light marks their latest album as their most engaging, thought-provoking effort to date.