Emotional attachment to a band’s music is a two-edged sword. As a listener, there’s a sense of depth provided by these kinds of records that other music just does not provide. It’s a transport to time and place, a vehicle for our memories and states of mind when the music was present, both positive and negative. These are the records that never leave you, for better or worse. As a reviewer, this type of attachment can be particularly challenging. While no written opinion is inherently objective, the reviewer is tasked with listening to a piece of music and providing perspectives based on logical and contextual analysis of a body of work outside of their emotional attachments. In this context, the pull of personal history can be a mighty force. When it comes to bands like Deafheaven, such level-headed analysis is especially difficult because they have never existed on any sort of neutral ground. The general consensus is typically a split between abject adoration and seething hatred. Their latest record, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, does very little to attempt to change either group’s mind. It’s as lush, dense, fierce, and epic as anything the band has yet produced, and amplifies all of the elements that followers of the band either love or loathe. In that regard, it may be the perfect Deafheaven record.
Following up the success of Sunbather and New Bermuda is a fairly monumental task. Regardless of your opinion of the band, it’s categorically impossible to deny their impact, with those two albums cementing Deafheaven into the metal world’s collective consciousness. While OCHL is a sonic step forward for the band overall, it’s also a bit of a detour through some of the band’s previously established songwriting tropes, especially those contained in Sunbather. These compositions are as complex, winding, emotionally vulnerable as those found on their seminal record, but are far from simple retreads. If you enjoyed that album, there is a veritable trove of treasures waiting for you here. If you wish fire and brimstone on the abomination that is “blackgaze”, you will leave OCHL once again deeply disappointed in a Deafheaven record. How could we expect anything less?
Unlike the band’s previous two records, OCHL kicks off on a slower, less “metal” note. “You Without End” opens the record not with the resounding clang of bells or a transformative riff, but with the soft sound of the ocean. It’s a change of pace for the band, and an immediate indicator of some sonic tweaks to Deafheaven’s formula. Keys take over the soundscape for the first half of the track’s 7-plus minutes, conjoined with a beautiful spoken word accompaniment by Nadia Kury, who infuses the track with a wistful gentleness throughout. George Clarke’s crazed vocals and Kerry McCoy’s powerful guitar work eventually come out to play, adding heft and gravity to a track that feels as if it could float away at any moment. It’s a diverse, unexpected, and thoroughly satisfying opening salvo for those who enjoy Deafheaven’s more ethereal moments.
While the epic nature of the album’s opening track continues throughout the record, its gentleness does not. “Honeycomb” calls back to tracks like “Brought to the Water” from New Bermuda, with blackened riffs and chugs filling the sonic landscape with deeply ominous intent. Dan Tracy’s drumming shines especially bright here, with his thunderous double-bass assault adding tons of weight to an already beefy track. By far one of the most underrated drummers in metal, Tracy is absolute fire throughout OCHL, delivering what may be his most multi-faceted and technically exceptional performance to date. At eleven minutes, “Honeycomb” is chock full of good ideas, which are executed at a high level throughout. But subsequent track “Yellow Canary” makes its predecessor feel like a mere warm-up. At twelve minutes, it’s one of the longest and most ambitious songs the band have yet written. It’s also one of their very best. Combining the tinkling gorgeousness of the album’s opening track with the emotional explosion of “Sunbather”, it’s an immediately memorable and moving sonic experience. “Glint” offers much of the same, bringing the album another sprawling post-black metal composition that is as intense as it is nuanced.
In addition to the above three titanic tracks, the album also dives headlong into some new sonic territory, highlighting the “-gaze” component of the band’s sound in noticeable and highly effective ways. “Near” is a majestic, reverb-laden opus, replete with gently sung clean vocals that feel reminiscent of melancholic stroll through the streets and beaches of Northern California. But the real highlight here is “Night People”, adorned with an emotionally expectant piano melody and the beautiful, haunting vocals of Chelsea Wolfe. It’s unlike anything the band have attempted, and it turns out to be a left-field highlight of the record. These journeys into completely un-metal territory are more prominent here than on the band’s previous records, and on the whole these experiments pay off in a big way, adding tons of unique character to Deafheaven’s sound in the process. The album eventually soars into “Worthless Animal”, which incorporates most all of the elements presented in OCHL into a magisterial finale that caps the record as well as can be hoped for.
For all the effusive praise given here, the record isn’t without its potential drawbacks. Moving farther away from the more metallic sounds of New Bermuda, OCHL may disappoint fans who were hoping for a more aggressive approach to the band’s post-black metal style. Additionally, there’s a debate to be had regarding track length. Does “Canary Yellow” really need all twelve of its minutes? There will be a significant feeling of bloat as some listeners travel through this record, but I fall to the more accepting side of these expansive tracks. Sure, I like my songs as lean and mean as the next metalhead, but when compositions are this well-constructed and performed it’s hard not to get swept up in their grandeur. When it comes to pros and cons, OCHL comes out very much on the side of delight.
OCHL is Deafheaven’s most ambitious and accomplished record. Full stop. It may not be your favorite in their discography, but its incorporation of all the elements that made the band’s previous work so invigorating, coupled with a heightened emphasis on more melodic, non-metallic components, make it a truly diverse and exceptional piece of music. This record won’t change your mind about the band whichever side of the love/hate fence you fall on, but that’s honestly a significant portion of its charm. Deafheaven are confident songwriters who know where they want their music to take you, and transport you to that exact emotional crossroads with expert precision. Whether you enjoy that journey or not is up to you, but the band’s confidence in the material they are presenting is absolute. OCHL is a firm statement of intent that is as bold and brilliant as any metal record released this year. That may not be the most objective statement I’ve ever written, but Deafheaven’s music transcends our well-intentioned attempts at un-biased analysis. It’s pure love-it-or-hate-it music, and bless them for making it. Enthusiastically recommended.
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Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is out now via Anti- Records, and is available for streaming and purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.