Album Review: Deafheaven—“New Bermuda”

By James Li

Deafheaven are one of the most polarizing bands in metal today, but there’s one thing their fans and detractors can agree on: questioning if Deafheaven is a metal band at all. Their previous album, Sunbather, had the same shrieked vocals and blastbeat drumming you commonly hear on a black metal album, but guitarist Kerry McCoy’s playing had more in common with The Smiths or Slowdive than Sarcófago. And what kind of black metal band chooses a hot pink album cover? Combining black metal with post-rock and shoegaze earned the San Francisco-based quintet a new audience (Sunbather sits at an aggregate rating of 92% on Metacritic, making it the most acclaimed album of 2013), but also the scorn of many dyed-in-the-wool metalheads (Sunbather sits at a much lower 59% on Metal Archives).

Album art for New Bermuda

Album art for New Bermuda

It would be easy for Deafheaven to repeat the success of Sunbather by making their sound even more accessible. Their signing to Anti-, the label that’s also home to Tom Waits and Neko Case, seemed to suggest that. But Deafheaven double down on their black metal roots on New Bermuda. The last line in the opener “Brought to the Water” says it all: “a multiverse of fuchsia and violet surrenders to blackness.” And New Bermuda is their blackest album yet. The ominous church bells and the galloping thrash riffs that open the album settle any doubts that Deafheaven are a metal band.

Frontman George Clarke’s vocals are higher in the mix, his rasped screames more intense than ever. Sometimes you can make out some of his strained words — the most audible line on the album might be on “Luna,” where Clarke finds himself “sitting in quietly scorching reimagined suburbia.” A suburban home isn’t exactly the cold forests in your typical black metal lyrics, but it’s desolate just the same. Even when you can’t make out his words, you can hear the despair in his voice.

Even as they get closer to the roots of black metal, Deafheaven still find room for surprises. The chime of a tambourine cuts through “Gifts for the Earth.” “Luna” fades out with the soft drone of a Hammond organ and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor-style field recording. And the slow-burning coda on “Baby Blue” features a gorgeous slide guitar. On Sunbather, the band sandwiched their interludes between full tracks, but now they have a better handle of incorporating softer elements into their songs.

That’s not to suggest that these moments of delicate beauty are the only things that make New Bermuda great. Deafheaven’s acclaim seems to suggest that metal bands are only worthy of real critical attention if they’re something more than metal. Pitchfork’s review doesn’t help that suspicion, namechecking Yo La Tengo, Tame Impala, and even Boston — almost any kind of band other than what Deafheaven actually sound like — perhaps to make them sound more palatable to an indie-loving readership.

But the best moments of New Bermuda don’t come from the acoustic lows, but the roiling, chaotic highs — in other words, the unapologetically metal moments. It’s Kerry McCoy’s explosive Metallica-style solos; it’s Daniel Tracy’s fill-heavy drumming, and it’s George Clarke’s impassioned screams. New Bermuda is more epic, more bombastic, more cathartic, and more abrasive than its predecessors in every way. In other words, it has the makings of a metal classic. (Anti-)

Listen: “Come Back”

One Response to “Album Review: Deafheaven—“New Bermuda””
  1. Justin says:

    Gifts was my favorite track off this album. I liked Sunbather a little more but definitely enjoyed this one as well.

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