Album Review: Deafheaven - 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love'

12 July 2018 | 3:10 am | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Not your ordinary blackgaze album.

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In 1951, British author Graham Greene published what would more or less become his most famous novel, The End of The Affair. A third-person narrated romance about protagonist Maurice Bendrix left bitter after an old fling ends; with  Greene's own real-life affair with Lady Catherine Walston playing right into the basis for this particular book. Set in London before, during and directly following WWII, the work deals with obsession, jealousy, finding God, Catholic guilt, and as the name suggests, saucy affairs. A juicy bed-rock for more literary inclined bands to pull inspiration from, I'd argue. Well, it seems that Deafheaven thought the same in one way or another, pulling from Greene's work for the title and lyrical vision of their newest 60-minute epic, 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love'.

Streamed last week early by the folks over at NPR - who are probably raking in the clicks and impressions like nobody's fuckin' business from such exclusive access - this new Deafheaven record works for one key reason. And that's that 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' isn't really a Deafheaven release. In fact, it's the "non-Deafheaven" parts of this album that affected and stuck with me the most. Beyond my own preferences, it will be these newer sounds that the Californian act touch upon that'll divide or unify fans. But mainly unify, I feel. (Then again, we are talking about black metal fans here so anything's anything). Either way, I don't think George Clarke and co. care too much about the semantics of genres; showing their passion for music first, opting into black-gaze second here.

Working once again with producer Jack Shirley, Deafheaven really aren't resting on their laurels with their most diverse and sonically dynamic record yet. After all, 2015's stellar 'New Bermuda' basically perfected what 2011's 'Roads To Judah' and 2013's 'Sunbather' (AKA "Baby's First Black Metal Album") were both aiming for, so why wear out that welcome now? Of course, this new release is still kinetic in energy, still heart-rendering in composition, still heavy in density, still beautiful in scope, and still equally bleak and cheerful in tone altogether. With layered vocals, hints of 70s/'80s psychedelia influences, warm analogue-sounding production, a few classic rock riffs, heavier piano usage, some spoken word moments, and loads of clean vocals, 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' molds new sonic influences into their world-grabbing black-metal-meets-shoegaze style. (Let us never forget Germany's Lantlôs, though). While this fourth Deafheaven full-length might not be my absolute favourite album of theirs (hello 'New Bermuda', it's me again), I do feel that this record will be remembered as their most versatile and most musically interesting release.

[caption id="attachment_1103169" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Deafheaven, 2018. A subversion of expectations, this new record certainly is![/caption]

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I love how opener 'You Without End' begins with sounds of cold winds blowing, soft major key piano notes, and relaxed, summery slide guitars; feeling more like the beginning of an indie-rock record than the start of an emotionally moving metal LP. It's honestly like Queen stumbled upon a Mayhem rehearsal sessions, with both bands deciding to jam right alongside each other. And I'll be damned if this song isn't one of the coolest things I've heard all damn year! This first track's hopeful spoken word section sees Longhairs' actress Nadia Kury read from a short noir story by Oakland author Tom McElravey, a particular section depicting the inner-workings of our seemingly small yet telling movements that occur in our day-to-day lives. All as the guitars swell the piece up into heavy screams placed against serene musical backdrops and we're balls-deep back in the familiar Deafheaven arena. (Getting their book-nerd glasses again, 'Honeycomb' also references seminal Argentinian writer, Julio Cortazar, while 'Canary Yellow' makes mention of Vanessa Diffenbaugh's most famous work with the lyric, “I have wondered about the language of flowers.”)

The mammoth 11-minute 'Honeycomb' shifts through so many movements that it's hard to label it even remotely self-indulgent or over-blown. Sure, once it gets going after the first few minutes, it's just Deafheaven 101; doing what they do best black-metal and shoegaze-wise in terms of instrumental layers, melodies, reverb, and rhythms. But then that rock guitar solo hits halfway through and it hurls you through the bloody ringer. And then the outro sees the five-piece throwing on their Slowdive caps for a gorgeous and courteous exit.

After a huge build-up, 'Canary Yellow' is pure black-gaze until eight minutes in when things suddenly shift in weight to relaxed, soulful indie-rock vibes. Then, soon enough, we find ourselves floating freely amongst a beautiful choral section for the finale. Here, the layered gang-vocals provide a call of "On and on and on we choke on" as George provides a piercing, shrieking answer with "My lover’s blood". It's brilliant stuff, and while it takes eons to reach such a pivotal moment, the journey of these longer cuts is all apart of the fun, honestly. For what's a great plot twist without the grinding build-up? Exactly - it's the whole fuckin' point! 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' may be a lengthy listen, but the caveat there is that there's actual payoff to be found in these songs.

Even this early on in the record, it's clear how much effort and care the band have put in. Not to say that past albums have been lazy or hastily cobbled together, just that this record really plays to each members strength. Sure, George is still using his long, spaced-out vocal phrasing, but his screams have lost none of their sheer power and his poetic, love-bathed lyrics remain consistent with the album's overarching theme. Elsewhere, Daniel Tracy's drumming is a real standout; becoming even more jazz-centric while also seeing his parts sometimes not follow the rest of the instrumentals, but take on a full voice of their own, like on 'Canary Yellow'. By that same token, Daniel also plays right for the songs themselves, as heard on cuts like 'Glint' or 'You Without End'. Kerry McCoy has also outdone himself here with his lead guitar work. His stunning playing, matched with fellow solid guitarist Shiv Mehra, makes for one of the most capable guitar parings in not just black metal, but in metal music overall of late; especially as they both skirt different genres for fresh solo and lead melody ideas. And my god, the duo's guitar textures here are as sublime, as searching and as heartfelt as they've ever been. Given what Shiv and Kerry - and Deafheaven as a whole - have produced before, I do not say that lightly.

The soothing clean vocals and deep-dreaming shoegaze instrumentals of ‘Near’ might just make for the most beautiful composition in all of Deafheaven's career. I'm aware that every reviewer ever has said that about this band at some point, but fuck it, this track brings a joyful tear to my eye.

Moving on, the darkened and orchestral 'Night People' is only a Deafheaven track in all but name. Cause if you heard 'Night Peopleanywhere else, you wouldn't even know it was on one of their songs! Bright guitar licks puncture a thick, ominous atmosphere created by the always-magnificent Chelsea Wolfe and her usual collaborator Ben Chisolm, as they both add eerie vocal duets to this percussive, twilight-suited piece. It's one of the shorter Deafheaven songs (alongside the solo-piano of 'Irresistible' and sample-heavy 'Windows' of old), but isn't just some filler passage. Rather, it's a beautifully unnerving piece that doesn't sound like what Bandcamp dwellers would think a Chelsea Wolfe feature on a Deafheaven track might be. And that's great!

Oh and if a black metal lord was ever going to serenade the world into their loving arms, I'm so glad that it's George Clarke with 'Glint' and lyrics like: “The midnight blue of your calmness, like evening chamomile, peppermint, eyes as morning rosewater." Goddamn, is hot in here or is it just me? For real, listening to this album is like staring into the eyes of an old-lover, just trying not to blink or look away. 'Glint' itself sees Deafheaven existing at their most post-rock for the first few minutes, before dropping into classic, reverberant black-gaze territory with stampeding blast beats under melodic tremolo guitars and earth-scorching screams. That's not even mentioning the typical "heavy metal" solo that appears before the seven-minute mark either. The whole piece is like a three-part narrative arc, and despite the near 11-minute length, it's the best example here of a song here where you aren't watching the clock.

Deafheaven's music has always been about the giant juxtaposition of their sound, and much like how 'You Without End' takes that idea to the breaking-point extreme, so too does the curtain-call of 'Worthless Animal'. Uplifting guitar leads bash against hallowed, throaty screams; inter-weaving in post-metal, shoegaze and delay looped passages over the course of this dynamic process. And hey, if you read that earlier paragraph about the band members themselves than let's be fair and talk about new bassist Chris Johnson. On 'Worthless Animal', his rumbling low-end playing cuts deep through the mix here so well. In fact, this spacious record's sound shows-off each of the five members nicely across Side A and Side B. Lastly, while I do loathe fade-outs for the most part, having this closing song's instrumental and vocal takes fade out into field recordings of howling wind is a lovely return to how the album started 50-minutes earlier. I'm a sucker for reprisals and cohesive flow in albums such and in this particular book-end, it's slotted in really well.

Deafheaven isn't really a band that receives overly negative reviews or harsh critiques - from writers or fans - and there's a very good reason for that. They're fuckin' great at what they do! However, I do think that ever since hearing Møl's incredible debut album, 'Jord', earlier this year, black-gaze has now been ruined for me. As I've seen just how damn well it can be done these days. Still, that's perhaps the best thing about Deafheaven's latest work; it goes beyond the realms of black-gaze and it makes for easily the most interesting Deafheaven release thus far. 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' is proof of Deafheaven's stance as one of the most important bands in black metal, even when they forgo the genre entirely. And hey, if this record helps you get over your ex or an old fling, than that's a win too.

You Without End


Canary Yellow



Night People

Worthless Animal

'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love' is officially out this Friday, July 13th.