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When the absurd series of horrors arising daily in modern life become too much to bear, it’s a nice escape to reflect back on what I like to call “Obama-era Problems.” These are the faux-calamities that seem totally ridiculous and inconsequential now but, for a time, inspired actual debate and even anger not that long ago.
One of my favorite OeP’s was a musical scourge known as “hipster metal,” which referred to a class of hard-riffing bands that were embraced by the music press and a small cadre of indie rock fans in the ’00s and early ’10s, naturally attracting the ire of skeptical metal purists. “When it came to the term ‘hipster metal,’ ‘hipster’ basically translated to ‘dilettante,'” Stereogum’s Phil Freeman observed earlier this year. The idea was that these bands — including The Sword, Deafheaven, Liturgy, and postLeviathan -Mastodon — attracted listeners only pretending to like metal for the sake of… irony, I guess?
Much like that era’s overall preoccupation with calling out hipsterism in all of its many forms, the “hipster metal” charge didn’t really stand up to scrutiny. What incentive would a person have to fake an interest in a form of music to the point of starting a band, playing shows, getting a record deal, and making an album? Especially when the genre in question hardly ever leads to a lucrative career? That’s a big commitment for a jokey pose. Wouldn’t it just be easier to wear an Iron Maiden shirt at a Yeasayer show?
Dilettantism, in general, is usually couched as a criticism for a band or an artist, but is it really so bad to not confine yourself to any particular genre or approach? In the case of Deafheaven — whose masterful 2013 breakthrough Sunbather was a 50/50 hybrid of scorching black metal and luminous shoegazer rock — dabbling in beauty one moment and ugliness the next without fully committing to either aesthetic has always been the band’s MO. What made Sunbather so bracing is that Deafheaven utilized metallic flourishes (down-tuned guitars, pummeling double-bass drums fills, screaming “angry Gollum” vocals) in order to heighten the melodrama of the album’s most sweeping, and crushingly beautiful, instrumental passages. Even when Deafheaven went hard, it was in the service of going soft. No wonder they pissed so many metalheads off.
Sunbather was my favorite album of 2013, and it remains one of the most overpowering rock records of the decade. Deafheaven’s constant striving toward pure visceral sensation — whether it is billowy pleasure or eardrum-busting pain — was tripped up somewhat on 2015’s New Bermuda, which played down the band’s “wimpy” side and upped the aggression, nudging Deafheaven ever-so-slightly toward a more conventional metal sound. Perhaps the band felt a misguided urge to prove that they could go as hard as anyone.
But on the new Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, there are no apparent concessions to the anti-hipster metal crowd. Deafheaven is back making mesmerizing, unapologetically “big” rock music that sometimes abandons metal altogether. A return to form, Human Love hits like a velvet fist.
Deafheaven’s vocalist George Clarke has described Ordinary Corrupt Human Love as the sound of “people enjoying what they’re doing,” hardly an adequate tease for a black metal record. But a feeling of unbridled liberation truly does animate the record, particularly when Deafheaven explores fresh, potentially treacherous sonic territory.
“You Without End” immediately lays out Human Love‘s bold, decidedly un-metal tendencies, opening with a swinging, almost jazzy piano lick on loan from a Steely Dan record. But before Deafheaven can delve fully into yacht-rock smoothness, Kerry McCoy’s familiar guitar wallop enters with Clarke’s ecstatic screams, sending the song into the stratosphere.
Another surprising departure is “Night People,” a low-key ballad featuring vocals by indie-goth singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, in which an atmospheric guitar drone looms behind yet another piano riff and woozily plaintive string section. Clocking in at a relatively economical 4:09 — four of Human Love‘s tracks run longer than 10 minutes — “Night People” broods quietly without ever building to a roaring catharsis. It’s the sort of tightly controlled mood piece that you expect to find on the back half of a National record, not from a band like Deafheaven.
Speaking of that quartet of long epics, Deafheaven is usually at its best — or its most Deafheaven — on tracks where the band can swell from a quiet introductory passage to a full-on apocalypse of anguished barks and triumphant guitar solos. Early on in Human Love, a nearly 24-minute double-shot of “Honeycomb” and “Canary Yellow” subvert this formula, beginning with cataclysmic doomsday histrionics and gradually working to dreamy, sparkly codas.
Those songs hew closest to the punishing sound of New Bermuda, and placing them in consecutive order risks turning Human Love into an overindulgent meal at the record’s midpoint. Thankfully, Deafheaven sprinkles some sweetness on subsequent track “Glint,” splicing an extended guitar solo amid the pounding riffage that uncannily recalls Noel Gallagher’s arrogant six-string heroics in Oasis’ “Supersonic.” Seriously.
Clarke and McCoy have never been shy about professing their love for enduring (if not exactly cool) ’80s and ’90s alternative rock. On Human Love, they’ve made those touchstones paramount, utilizing them in the same way they use black metal, to reiterate the intense emotionalism of their songs. If that means lifting the spiraling guitar riff from Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” for the rousing closer “Worthless Animal,” at least the theft is for a worthy cause.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love sounds a mile wide, even if it is only an inch deep. Clarke’s vocals don’t welcome close inspection of Deafheaven’s lyrics, which is just as well. In “Glint,” he is apparently howling about “the midnight blue of your calmness, like evening chamomile, peppermint, eyes as morning rosewater.” (Whatever happened to metal bands singing about the devil or cow entrails?) It’s best to just revel in the heart-stopping power of the music. For Deafhaven, form and feeling — and exploding those things with maximum grandiosity — remain the focal point.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is out 7/13 on Anti-. Get it here.