I honestly did not have high expectations for Deafheaven‘s follow up to 2013’s Sunbather, New Bermuda. Follow-ups to albums that really mean a lot to me often turn out to be rather disappointing—never able to capture the feeling of what came before and instead sounding like they’re just rehashing a boring formula. Lead single “Brought to the Water” didn’t make an impression on me the first time I heard it, with its abrupt shifts between heaviness, post-rock and a piano outro. Likely because it works a lot better within the context of the full album. Since Deafheaven are now honing in on a genre they blew wide open, this latest album can’t be as much of a revelation as Sunbather was, but by tweaking the formula enough and adding the right amount of snarling uncaged anger, Deafheaven have managed to surprise once again.
Sunbather was all lightness, contending with an imagined ideal of beauty from afar. Moments reminiscent of Sunbather still exist on New Bermuda: take the end of “Luna” into the serene post-rock beginnings of “Baby Blue.” But this new Deafheaven has teeth. There’s more heaviness and earthiness to the more “metal” sections of the album. After the intro to “Baby Blue,” tension builds with drum rolls before dropping into a mash-up of tremolo-ed riffs and solos, and Clarke’s screamed vocals. It’s the kind of drop that’s totally formulaic, but the band works the dynamics of the song so well that it’s completely worth it. This is, of course, very unlike the beginning of album standout “Come Back,” which teases about half a minute of ambient before it rolls out the most traditional-sounding black metal on the album, followed by the biggest, stupidest, chuggingest riff possible.
Moments like that big stupid riff on “Come Back” are still interspersed with typical Deafheaven blackgaze—the riff breaking up the prettiness one would expect from Deafheaven in such a thrilling (and fleeting) way that I can’t stop going back to that section of the song to hear it again. It reminds me of two other albums from this year, Caina’s Setter of Unseen Snares and Vattnet Viskar’s Settler (namely the songs “Colony” and “Glory”) where bands just dip ever so slightly into the well of traditional rock and metal references to set them against their updated forms of black metal. Because it’s good for dynamics, because it gives the song just enough edge, and because they can.
That stupid riff on “Come Back,” the kicking and fighting intro to “Brought to the Water” and the combination of thundering drums and Clarke’s shrieking invitations to fight are the three moments on New Bermuda stand out to me as the biggest departures from the sound of Sunbather, but the emotional power the band is able to generate is still there. I’ve been focusing heavily on the, well, heavy bits of the album, because they’re so crucial to making New Bermuda stand out. But the moments of restraint, the Yo La Tengo rock work as always. The album’s top-level production helps integrate the range of dynamics on New Bermuda so well. Guitar, vocals and drums all sound separate from one another, a highly effective way for this album to let each stand out on its own at key moments. The one thing that bothers me about the album is that a few of the songs have similar structures – start out heavy, peter out into post-rock. But when listened to as a whole, they flow together well.
One reason metalheads tend to criticize Deafheaven is that they find their ability to inflict emotions upon the listener offensive. In translation: “Deafheaven made me feel something and now I’m mad.” I think being able to affect your emotions is a positive quality of music, whether that emotional effect was channeling rage at the world into cookie cutter blackened thrash riffs from some no-name band or causing you to cry at the beauty of nature while driving through the mountains listening to Sunbather.* One of the reasons I always appreciated Deafheaven was their ability to evoke the most epic of emotions. I can’t exactly figure out yet what New Bermuda is for, since I haven’t lived with it very long. The beautiful thing about Sunbather, though, is the way it wove itself into my life, soundtracking moments that wouldn’t have been otherwise memorable, drawing reactions out of me I didn’t know were possible. I’m looking forward to doing the same with New Bermuda.
*Weeping to Deafheaven while in the car looking at mountains has happened to me more than once. Share your story in the comments below.