Metal rarely gets its due with critics and music press these days. This could be a product of genre stagnation or its utter disappearance from the mainstream and indie crowds.
But in 2013, the San Francisco band Deafheaven released its second LP “Sunbather” to critical acclaim and topped countless "album of the year" charts. What makes this feat so triumphant, if a bit predictable, is the band’s classification as “blackgaze” – a swirling combination of hallowed black metal and My Bloody Valentine shoegazing.
Naturally, any record received by critics with such fervor is subject to strict scrutiny from its listeners. “Sunbather” is perhaps the most divisive and controversial album recently released, dividing those who call it an unbeknownst masterpiece and others who label it middling “hipster metal.”
Now, it's 2015 and Deafheaven has returned bearing its third fire starter record “New Bermuda” — a surprising improvement and maturation over the previous material many already cherished.
The first track, “Brought to the Water,” hits with a typical furious gusto, but eventually expands into melodious guitar solos and an airy midsection loosening the band’s post-rock influences.
The final moments of the album opener releases all of its tension into a piano coda, mimicking Derek and the Dominos’ iconic “Layla.” Hearing the stark contrast between George Clarke’s piercing wails and an almost Christian church sing-a-long piano lead is beyond bizarre, but Deafheaven makes it work.
And this contradiction sets the stage wonderfully for the upcoming ebb and flow each track bestows.
“New Bermuda” is a voyage through gorgeously hellish landscapes with rolling hills half burnt and half bloomed. The skies may be scorched orange and dotted with the Valkyries of death, but the image is lit by the romantic skyscapes of stars and human hope.
Because of this, Deafheaven isn’t for your standard machismo metal head. It’s less explosive than thrash and death metal, less vast than post-rock and less gut-wrenching than black metal. But it’s Deafheaven’s ability to mesh all of these sounds into a single product that eclipses the emotional boundaries set by any of those subsequent genres.
Clarke’s screaming coats over instrumentals that swerve between vicious roars of noise and sleepy lullabies. The beginning of “Come Back” is caressed by a lonely guitar melody that segues into a decibel cracking wall of sound. There’s no comfortable transitions here; the sudden meter changes from soft to loud feels like being tossed unwillingly into icy water.
Perhaps the only continuous momentum “New Bermuda” has is the drumming of Dan Tracy. Throughout the record he evolves the meaning of blast-beats and embraces the role of an almost orchestral drummer. Tracy’s playing is still an eye-popping test of stamina, but his ability to lead the album’s many color changes shows he’s an incredible musician capable of carrying the band to new heights.
Guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra have improved their repertoire, too. “Baby Blue” is the album’s bona fide guitar track that spends its first minutes drenched in effects and mood building. Midway through, McCoy emits a soaring solo that could fit right in on almost any Metallica song. It’s a strange departure from the tremolo shoegazing of Deafheaven’s backbone and shows the band’s willingness to experiment with their established sound.
Every song feels like an apocalyptic viewing party edged with chaos for the crashing meteors and wrapped with passages written for the heartfelt embracement of those you chose to die with. The fires may rise around you, teasing pain and catastrophe, but at least you’ll burn in good company.
Heavy music rarely feels appropriate for fireside chats, but it’s that exact feeling of homebound warmth that makes Deafheaven so unique. “New Bermuda” pulsates with corpse-lifting humanity like an evil-cousin to the angst ridden beauty one might find in The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.”
While the trappings of black metal remain, the band has taken its ingenious sound back to the workshop and tinkered with it until a more refined product came to fruition. While great art is decidedly divisive — forcing you to feel and make an opinion — “New Bermuda” is so good it just may convert the cynics into Deafheaven fans.
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