If you'd put a wager on Deafheaven five years ago, saying that they would release an album that would be championed by the mainstream music press, many people (including, no doubt, the band themselves) would have dismissed such things as madness. Yet, half a decade since their formation and subsequent debut demo release, the band are ready to make their next move after the staggering crossover success of 'Sunbather', an album that gained them as much notoriety with black metal purists as it did popularity with, well, everyone else.
Their songs brought light into the otherwise nihilistic and shadowy world that the genre has become infamous for, with a beautiful record that documented frontman George Clarke's struggles with depression and anxiety, as well as a longing for a better life, maybe even one he could call perfect.
What 'New Bermuda' addresses is what happens next. Though he and his band-mates - yes, plural, as there are now four of them - have seemingly achieved everything they ever wanted, a new life brings with it new responsibilities and new fears. In the blink of an eye, Clarke went from being homeless, to living with his girlfriend and sleeping on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, to moving to Los Angeles and achieving stability; and yet, the pieces didn't seem to fit.
An intense touring and promotion cycle for 'Sunbather' was ongoing in the midst of all this, and everything was happening so fast that he didn't know how to deal with it. Cue his descent into becoming a depressed shut-in, one that's documented here on 'Luna', the second track on the album. It opens at a gallop, its juddering thrash metal-influenced opening riff leading into a familiar avalanche of blast beats and vicious tremolo guitar. "I've boarded myself inside and refuse to exit ... Confined to a house that never remains clean / To a bed where the ill never get well" - Clarke delivers these lines in a raspy shriek far removed from his previous vocal efforts, like he's forcing out every pained syllable. The track's juxtaposition of minor and major keys (via an undeniably beautiful piano segue) epitomises the conflicting emotions that influenced much of the lyrical content on the album.
Musically speaking, 'New Bermuda' takes influence from a variety of genres. The extended instrumental passage that opens 'Baby Blue' is pure '90s slowcore, the track also tipping its hat to the likes of Deftones and mid-'80s Metallica, with the latter especially apparent in McCoy's impressively Kirk Hammett-esque solo about four minutes in. Its closing segment, meanwhile, features one of those pitch-perfect leads that you hope will go on for ages (you know, like the one that closed 'The Pecan Tree' off 'Sunbather'), but instead heralds a gradual fade-out. They're still doing that thing where they can't properly conclude some of their songs (again, looking at you, 'The Pecan Tree'), but the fade-outs on the new record seem more purposeful - 'Baby Blue' crashes to earth with a recorded voice detailing Los Angeles traffic control measures, dredging up images of mundanity when, moments before, it seemed to be reaching for the stars. Opener 'Brought to the Water', meanwhile, takes its closing chord progression and re-purposes it into a brief piano coda that would almost be uplifting if not for its intentional bum note.
When not adding small flourishes to keep the mood rooted in pessimism - and 'New Bermuda' is certainly pessimistic, trading in its predecessor's flashes of hope for something halfway between melancholy and despair - Deafheaven's latest offering remains appropriately dark. There's nothing as crushing as the use of major keys in songs as bleak as these, and only the hardest of hearts would fail to be moved by the gradual shift to brighter tones in penultimate track 'Come Back'. The combination of slide guitar and acoustic backing is devastating.
It bleeds into closing track 'Gifts For The Earth', on which a miserable Clarke expresses his wish for death, his voice twisted into something that's barely recognisable as human as he imagines his lifeless body decaying, a visceral and powerful image that's difficult to shake. His band's new record deals with the sort of darkness that 'Sunbather' and debut LP 'Roads to Judah' only hinted at, but the album's melodic denouement offers hope for the future.
Deafheaven have managed to craft a lengthy, complex offering that could be considered the antithesis of their lauded second album, but also proves to their doubters that they're here to stay. They've come a long way in five years, and 'New Bermuda' is surely set to take them further still.
Words: Gareth O'Malley
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