Even now, five years after the release of the iconic 2013 album Sunbather, it seems that all reviews of new work by the “metalgaze” outfit Deafheaven must begin with a critical review of just how controversial the band is. Lead vocalist George Clarke screams like a phantom crying for help from a subterranean world… but the guitars are pretty! The riffs, they go from Explosions in the Sky-esque major key leads to gnarly, Emperor-style distortion! How could such disparate elements hope to form compelling music? Of course, as I noted in my review of Sunbather for PopMatters, Deafheaven’s marriage of post-rock’s dreamy textures and black metal’s dissonant, at times abrasive tonalities was hardly new back when Sunbather shot the band to stardom. Pioneering metal acts like Alcest had already been recording the kind of genre chiaroscuro one hears on Sunbather and Deafheaven’s 2011 debut, Roads to Judah. Still, Deafheaven’s take on the style is uniquely compelling, especially on Sunbather, one of this decade’s great metal recordings.
Since that fateful LP things have gone remarkably well for Deafheaven, yet still critics feel the need to hem and haw about just how much controversy and polarization Deafheaven’s music causes. The early reviews of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, the group’s fourth LP and first since 2015’s New Bermuda, continue in this discourse-framing. “People do not have passive reactions or moderate opinions about Deafheaven,” writes Grayson Haver Currin for the NPR streaming premiere of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. “Punchlines or saviors, champions or charlatans, leather-gloved posers or earnest bleeding hearts: Deafheaven has become one of its generation’s most divisive bands.”
Over at MetalSucks, Excretakano summarizes the debate instigated by Sunbather: “Either you were true to the kvlt, and the record… [was] anathema, or you were a hipster poser praising the band for crossing boundaries, for shrugging off those restrictive extreme metal norms and embracing dorky shoegaze anthems as equally valid expressions of inner darkness.” Never mind that this decade has seen some of the most innovative genre melding in heavy metal; never mind that the divided opinion on Deafheaven didn’t stop the band from succeeding; and never mind, ultimately, that genre labels are but signposts to help newcomers and musical explorers, rather than ontological categories that exist in the firmament of any given artist’s sonic imagination. The arguments spurred by Sunbather‘s bare existence have irrevocably shaped critical and popular conversation about Deafheaven.
Certainly, it’s easy to see why Sunbather prompted such an intense array of reactions. Even those who listened to that record with Alcest and other like acts in mind, it had to be jarring to go from the placid, sun-kissed instrumental “Irresistible” to the bruising guitar strums on “Sunbather”. (And at the risk of being reductive, salmon pink is a rarely used color in the world of metal album cover design.) But Deafheaven wasn’t inventing a sub-genre whole cloth with Sunbather, nor is the idea of melding lighter, less abrasive sounds with the heavy and prickly techniques of heavy metal musicians. Artists in the metal fold routinely incorporate the styles of bluegrass (Panopticon), folk (Opeth), even pop (Devin Townsend), and none of them usually get treated as scene-upending iconoclasts in the way Deafheaven was after its sophomore LP.
Predictably the members of the band don’t themselves endorse such lofty claims: in my 2013 interview with Clarke for this publication, he humbly remarked, “We do what we do, and it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, so there’s no reason to be apologizing for it.” The right reaction to all of this, in the end, can either be found in Clarke or in Excretakano, who writes that one can be “interested in music that sp[eaks] to you,” which is more than “good enough, regardless of any allegiances the internet hordes demanded.” Put simply: good music is good music. Genre is no religion, which correspondingly means there is no heterodoxy to commit.
Now, there’s an irony to all I’ve just said: here I’ve made a case for not getting mired in the “controversies” that bog critics down when it comes to Deafheaven, yet here I’ve just spent the first three paragraphs of this review summarizing those very controversies. Fair enough. It’s hard to know when one has done the right amount of throat-clearing, intellectual or otherwise. Yet I find it important to center the conversation about Ordinary Corrupt Human Love on the right terms: namely, explicitly musical ones, in addition to understanding how the album evolved from the three studio LPs that preceded it. On those terms, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is not just a magnificent piece of music, but quite possibly this still-young outfit’s finest hour.
Things began where they left off three years ago. New Bermuda closes with a curious tune called “Gifts for the Earth”, which starts off with some strummed chords that sound closer to pop-punk than they do to black metal. What follows is the sharpest contrast thus far between light and dark in Deafheaven’s studio output, with the song concluding in an acoustic guitar and piano arrangement that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a glory-days Oasis disc.
“You Without End” opens with ocean sounds that give way to a simple piano arpeggio. Clean electric guitar joins the piano, playing somewhat against the strident pace of the arpeggio. A dissonant note occasionally interrupts the dreamy pace of the piano and guitar. A spoken word vocal enters the mix – Nadia Kury, an actress, who reads from a narrative about Oakland, where Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was recorded. Then comes Clarke, whose screams initially feel out of place against what is one of Deafheaven’s least “metal” numbers. But like “Gifts from the Earth”, the juxtaposition of his howls and the music creates a unique kind of anguish and darkness. As it caps off with a soaring guitar lead that weaves in and out of piano chords, “You Without End” ends up bringing to mind, of all bands, Queen. Guitarist Kerry McCoy shines right away on this album, and as strange and compelling an introduction as this is, things only get better from here.
Numerous moments throughout Ordinary Corrupt Human Love instantly becomes classics on par with Clarke’s cry of “I want to dream!” at the crescendo of Sunbather‘s triumph, “Dream House”. The band puts to tape what in this critic’s opinion is their finest composition yet, “Canary Blue”. At 12 minutes it’s no small investment, and the second the song transforms from an angelic, sky-gazing post-rock song in its first two minutes to a powerful riff clinic by McCoy, it becomes just how capable Deafheaven is at structuring songs which capaciously explore a range of emotions and sonic textures. When the song concludes with a cryptic yet powerful chanted refrain – “On and on we choke on an everlasting handsome night / My lover’s blood rushes through me / Wild, fantastic” – it’s almost too much, like the group has somehow managed to fit a whole album’s worth of material into a single (admittedly lengthy) song.
“Near”, easily the most “shoegazey” thing these guys have penned, caps off the epic scope of “Canary Yellow” with five minutes of airy chords and languid guitar leads – reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a regular influence for Deafheaven – that require the listener to slow down and sit with the emotions being explored. Unlike Sunbather, whose short pieces often felt transitory rather than significant in their own right, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love‘s brief tunes, both “Near” and the Chelsea Wolfe duet “Night People”, exhibit their own unique beauty while also operating as release valves for the cathartic rises and falls of the ten-plus minute pieces.
“Glint” and “Worthless Animal” feel most like followups to New Bermuda. Either would have worked on that record, though that’s not to say they waste space on this album. “Glint” features one of Deafheaven’s best codas: just as the song seems to be on its way out with a melancholic guitar arpeggio, the drums kick things back into one final overdrive. The tug of heaviness and quietness defines Deafheaven’s music and has since Roads to Judah, but every now and again the band shows off that it isn’t getting complacent in that skill. These dynamic volleys shape “Worthless Animal”, another brilliant long tune whose only fault – like “The Pecan Tree” five years before it – is its use of the fade-out, a move that clashes with the compositional techniques of Deafheaven. Following a sequence of crescendos and descrescendoes, of quietly picked guitars erupting into face-melting shredding, the unnatural fade-out feels like someone turning the volume down rather than the song coming to a natural conclusion. In an album chock full of gob-smackingly brilliant songwriting, however, such slights are just that: slight.
At the risk of being a little esoteric, the three Deafheaven records after Roads to Judah evoke a distinct time of day. As its name lets on, Sunbather captures that time of the day when the sun is directly overhead, rays of light baking everything below them. New Bermuda skips ahead to the thick of night, with its inky black sleeve art contrasting with the pale pink of Sunbather. The doomy chords and funeral bells that introduce “Brought to the Water” and the intense blastbeat attack of “Come Back” take the angst and pain of midday heat and drown them in darkness. Even in its lightest moments (the opening of “Baby Blue”, “Gifts from the Earth”), New Bermuda feels thus far most like Deafheaven’s “black metal” record, for those tracking these releases by genre first and foremost. In the middle of Sunbather‘s day and New Bermuda‘s night lies the dusky, twilit Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, whose textures and emotions paint a picture of that liminal space between light and dark. The hazy, glum chords of “Near” and the wistful “You Without End” conjure up – for me, at least – memories of overcast beach skies, when the night’s dark just begins to encroach on what little remains of daylight in the clouds.
That Ordinary Corrupt Human Love stands in the space between the unmistakable contrast of Sunbather and New Bermuda is not to its detriment; quite the opposite. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love takes the strengths of its predecessors and refines them even further, which results in a dynamic emotional and musical experience that previous Deafheaven records came close to achieving, but never quite like this.