Deafheaven – New Bermuda
I can understand the misgivings people have about Deafheaven. They're a band that fills the basic criteria of "metal," i.e. loud guitars/screamed vocals/blast beats/et al, but flies in the face of convention with their major-key modalities, Instagram-worthy aesthetic, and almost saccharine lyricism. In the past, and especially on their last album Sunbather, their sunny sensibilities made, how shall we say, quite the splash in the metal scene. To many, the band represented the apex of the "hipster beard metal" invasion, a band that placed an indie-rock image atop the musical legacies of black metal.
I was part of the mob, at first. I have an animus towards hipsters or anyone who doesn't appreciate sincerity, and to hear those people advocating a so-called "metal" band rustled my jimmies. Naturally, I took it out on Deafheaven. I also hadn't heard the music.
When I finally did get to listening to it, I quickly realized (as many metalheads don't, to their detriment) that my biases had worked entirely against me. It was a warm summer day when I finally played Sunbather.. Lazy, indolent, slumped in a comfy chair with dappled sunlight beaming through warm windows, the music blended itself perfectly with my environment. The guitars immersed me, the beats were often barely perceptible above the warm fuzz, like sound carried on sunbeams. Deafheaven were melancholy but hopeful, the sound of a deep desire to love and be loved in a passionate, vibrant way. It was, to me, the next generation in the expressive heaviness of Amesoeurs, Alcest, and Ved Buens Ende.
It was with that record in mind that I approach the latest Deafheaven offering, New Bermuda. This record is not like its predecessor, in most important ways both musical and aesthetic (more on that in a bit). Here is Deafheaven attempting to be metal, and truly metal at that. Listen to "Brought to the Water," the leading single from the record. There's chugging there, honest-to-Satan palm muting, and rather than filling a barely-discernible drone in the background, those drums fucking pound and crush. Sure, there's a major-key interlude in the middle, but listen to the rest of the song and you'd be forgiven for assuming you were hearing Panopticon or Vattnet Viskar.
Think of it this way: if Sunbather was "post-black metal," New Bermuda is actually black metal. George Clarke's screams are more feral, the guitars heavier and riffier, sacrificing the sunny cascade of Sunbather for a torrential downpour. There are actual guitar solos, real whammy-bar blazers like if Slash stopped by for a beer or ten. It's the thunderstorm at nightfall to Sunbather's blissful afternoon haze, or a cloudy autumn afternoon after a summer of bright evenings. Occasionally there's an inkling of the shimmer, like on the second half of "Luna" or the final piano melody, but the production of the record keeps it from truly encapsulated.
Even when New Bermuda is beautiful, it's a joy that's being shot into your skull like a line of coke, not a joy that's breathed in like a warm spring breeze. Think of it as Agalloch, but with the pseudo-Nordicism replaced by bohemian angst. Even that final piano outro is basically just major-key "Odal."
New Bermuda is a solid, well-produced album. It also isn't why I listen to Deafheaven. Yes, this is black metal done right, and if it were any other band, like Vattnet Viskar, I'd be singing its praises all day long. But I liked Sunbather so much because it wasn’t black metal. Black metal makes me feel either angry or wistful, but with Deafheaven I felt serenity. It wasn't black metal because it was the mirror image of black metal, a blistering expression of desire and beauty that was the light to the usual black. New Bermuda is good, but if I'm being honest I'd kind of rather just roll out my well-worn copy of The Mantle. This new one is a "dark" record, of which I can list dozens in my record collection, as opposed to a "light" record, of which there is Sunbather and Alcest’s discography and that's it.
I do admire Deafheaven for wanting to try something new, to try and silence those critics who refused to give them a chance because they weren't metal enough by crafting a record that draws from Sunbather while still being firmly "metal." It certainly beats the Liturgy approach, which is to leave promising post-black metal for straight up mediocre indie rock. But when I heard Sunbather I no longer cared that Deafheaven weren't metal in the traditional sense: I cared that their sound was unique and that it made me feel something. New Bermuda does make me feel something, but it's ennui, that nagging sense that something could be different or better. I don't know about you, but I'm heading back to the “Dream House” for the time being.
New Bermuda is out now on ANTI-. Follow Deafheaven on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram at @deafheavenband