Deafheaven’s Sunbather was the antithesis of a sophomore slump. The album produced armies of lovers and haters, who debated whether or not the album was “metal” enough to deserve all the media attention proclaiming it as one of the greatest current metal albums. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever forget waiting in line to see Deafheaven and hearing the couple behind me discussing the wonders of using beeswax to waterproof your TOMS shoes. So, I probably stand in the “eh, not that metal” side of the Deafheaven debate. But frankly, who gives a shit, because that Deafheaven show rocked (metal or not), and I can’t wait to see them again in a few weeks. Deafheaven combines metal (yes, metal) riffs with reverbing walls of sound reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine and somber instrumentals echoing Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. Some call it blackgaze, others call it “not metal at fucking all,” but whatever you call it, it’s distinctly Deafheaven.
Obviously, Deafheaven had a lot to live up to after Sunbather, and they largely did with their latest album, New Bermuda. While Sunbather had an actual-song/ambient-song/actual-song layout that I thought was cute but boring, New Bermuda cuts the fat and lays down five loud, dynamic songs. Usually I don’t recommend judging by the cover, but I think it’d work pretty well here: Sunbather has a bright-pink album cover with equally bright, beautiful “blackgaze,” while New Bermuda has a dark, impressionistic painting (by Allison Schulnik) of what looks like a melted No Face from Spirited Away. The songs have “water,” “luna,” and “earth” in the titles, as if to say, “This is anything but Sunbather.”
Rather than yield to fans who demand more of the same, Deafheaven seems to address those could-be fans who just don’t think the band is metal enough. New Bermuda is much more hard-hitting, with too-the-point riffs and even a guitar solo here and there. And those softer sides of Deafheaven are still there, but tucked away within songs, rather than being placed in the “here’s the soft song” bin like Sunbather. It was a risk to stray away from an album that got so much acclaim, but it’s largely paid off, and has made me likely to continue putting Deafheaven on my list of most anticipated albums.
After a few eerie hums and chiming bells, “Brought to the Water” starts with gruesome guitars and a riff that’s so straightforwardly badass that it could have been from a Metalocalypse song (and that’s a compliment). Then, around the 3:30 mark, a fairly undistorted guitar solo (something we never heard on Sunbather) pierces through the badass riffs. Is Deafheaven trying to be “actual metal”? You think so, until a minute later the band quiets down with a reverbing guitar that reminds me of (dare I say it?) water and Explosions in the Sky’s All The Sudden I Miss Everyone. For a few minutes the song turns back into a “metal song” until closing with a piano instrumental that’s pretty simplistic but much prettier than anything we saw on Sunbather.
The main highlight of the album has to be the next song, “Luna.” It starts off with another Metalocalypse-worthy riff, but quickly it becomes an emotional wall of sound with one-hit-KO drum beats. Around the five-minute mark, the song becomes something I’m not sure I’ve heard in metal/shoegaze/blackgaze/whatever-the-fuck-this-is: An atmospheric wave of guitars that’s as cathartic and somber as “Adagio for Strings.” It’s a beautiful segment, and one of my favorite album moments in a while.
“Baby Blue” is probably the most interesting track, where Deafheaven tries to experiment with their sound as much as possible. They start off with a long instrumental that sounds like a cross between the first minute of Pavement’s “Grounded” and Radiohead’s “Weird Fishses.” Then comes another interesting, not-so-Sunbather guitar solo, but the second half of the track overindulges a fairly boring guitar riff. “Baby Blue” ends with a field recording of a PSA from the George Washington Bridge, which echoes the feeling of the “Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini Market” segment on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. This segways into the barely-audible intro to “Come Back,” which sounds too much like the intro to “Sleep” off that same album. After the Godspeed You! Black Emperor gimmicks, though, the song bursts into the most-convincingly-metal bit of the album - a series of unrelenting riffs worthy of being the background music for a stampede of ringwraiths. “Come Back” ends with an unexpected '90s sadcore breakdown similar to Red House Painters and Low’s early days. It’s indicative of Deafheaven’s versatility and refusal to put out Sunbather again, and it makes me excited for where this band going next.
The last song, “Gifts for the Earth,” is my least favorite on the album, not so much because it’s bad but because it copies everything we saw on the previous four songs. There’s another less-convincingly-badass riff (“Back to the Water”), the “atmospheric/cathartic part” (“Luna”), and there’s another sadcore breakdown (“Come Back”), but it goes on for too long.
All criticism aside, it’s still a good song, because, well, the rest of New Bermuda is so good. Rather than leaving Sunbather as the pinnacle of whatever-you-want-to-call-this-genre, Deafheaven is still pushing to create that perfect blend of pretty brutality that so few bands can pull off. Can’t wait to see them again in Boston.
Looking back at Sunbather, Deafheaven's sophomore release, it is very easy to understand how that album was able to become the point of dispute within the black metal realm. The debut album of Deafheaven, Roads To Judah, was easier to come to terms with. Its blend of black metal and post-rock, as well as the shoegaze tendencies were still at an early stage, although that would change. Deafheaven made a very big leap with Sunbather, merging their love for extreme metal, the expansive vision of post-rock and the emotional depth of shoegaze. The album itself was glorious, filled with great use of structures, changes in dynamics, extremity yet at the same time approachable and with a slightly, dare I say, melodic core.
Even though what Deafheaven achieved with Sunbather is not something absolutely new; shoegaze and black metal have, in occasion, crossed ways in the past, almost always leading to some very interesting, to say the least experience, Sunbather felt like the pinnacle of that endeavour. So, the big question is: where do we go from here? Following an album such as Deafheaven's sophomore full-length is no easy thing, and the band is aware of that. So, enter New Bermuda. And even though Deafheaven do hang on to what made their sound so unique in the past, there are certain leanings towards other realms as well.
Let's start with the obvious one though, since this is, not strictly but still, a black metal band. “Luna” features a complete assault, with Deafheaven letting their very bitter and destructive black metal side rise to the surface, navigating through a dark maze of endless pathways, absolutely frenzied in the process. In that same crazed form, with more aggression and determination this time around, “Come Back” is unveiled. The constant blastbeats and that hungry, seeking black metal feeling prevail in this case. Within this constant struggle, short bursts of shoegaze and post-rock creep in, taking on the form of short lead parts, with their presence felt almost at a subconscious level. What is more, Deafheaven do not have any trouble awakening one of the most characteristic attributes of black metal, and that is no other than the eerie feeling, which makes an appearance in “Come Back.” That is also the case with parts of “Luna,” showing the temperament of Deafheaven which manages to make a great switch from the ghostly parts to the full-blown chaos, without losing any of their intensity when that change occurs. However, one of the more surprising aspects of New Bermuda is revealed quite early on the album, with “Brought To The Water.” The track might be taking on the raw black metal mantle, but then Deafheaven go for a more metallic approach.
The metal approach of Deafheaven has an air of modernity about it. And it is also something that was not featured as much in their previous albums. The part in “Brought To The Water” where that vibe is first established, acts like a beacon for the remainder of the album. The riffology in parts of “Luna” follows down similar pathways and the chugging part in “Come Back” is such another moment. “Baby Blue” is probably the track that leans even more heavily on that side of New Bermuda, with some razor sharp chugging bits present, leading to a towering mid-tempo part of overwhelming weight. Everything in the song points towards a modern classic, with the guitar solo in there also taking on a very hard rocky, proto-metal sort of tone to it. Obviously, that does not mean that the majority of the parts in New Bermuda carry on down that path. As “Baby Blue” is unveiled, through its heavy riffs, it reaches a point where the band is indulging in a bit of a noise injection. The strange haze of dissonance that is awakened sees Deafheaven losing themselves within that new façade that they are taking on.
The post-metal quality of the band is as intense as ever, and in the case of “Baby Blue” it is responsible for the construction of this beautiful and fragile sonic vision. The opening melodies set the tone and the meticulous build up carries on, as the ethereal element of the track is presented. The manner in which the dynamics of the track are laid out and the methodology in switching around the parts is allowing the band to keep the listener's interest, adding more variety to an already excellent track. Then there is also the more energetic side of post-metal, with “Gifts For The Earth” starting off in such an intense way and crafting such a great groove for the track, showing that the music of the band is not contained within just a few feelings. It can appear uplifting and with drive, but it can also be led into melancholy. That is the case with “Come Back” and the closing track of the album, with the band being led into this magical, yet melancholic and pessimistic domain, almost like a slowcore track. It comes down not just to being able to come up with these great expanding post-metal parts, which appear huge through your loudspeakers, or the explosive black metal assaults, tearing you limb from limb. It is about being able to transmit your emotions to the listener, transferring them to the same place where the band is.
Big part of achieving such great emotive quality in New Bermuda is the manner in which the shoegaze approach is implemented. “Gifts For The Earth” seem to awaken a post-punk groove, merging with the shoegaze parts, bringing in the emotional quality, and going even further by adding the ethereal aspect of post-rock. Moments in “Brought To The Water” are drenched in the dreamlike state of the genre, resulting in a great contrast from the annihilating black metal parts. The lead work is mainly responsible for achieving such a result, something that the band also applies in “Luna,” almost appearing like a distant cry for help while no one is around.
The shoegaze quality of “Luna” appears as an otherworldly trap that Deafheaven lay out for you, so treacherous and yet so tempting, especially when the track erupts in a shoegaze/post-rock blaze. The music of the track is spiralling with the band bending black metal, and through it post-metal melodies begin to blossom, blurring the lines between the two. This loss of self between black metal and post-metal is apparent in the majority of New Bermuda. In “Come Back” a majestic element arises with the track becoming huge in the process, while in the “Gifts For the Earth” the post-rock element is used to give more emphasis, even through repetition, granting a great sense of movement as it reaches its peak. The bitter after-taste that this combination brings is glorious, with the music becoming torturing in the process before it settles on a sweeter tonality.
Let's get one thing out of the way. New Bermuda is a good album. No scratch that. New Bermuda is a great album. It is an album of change, and it is different from Sunbather. I do not belong in the group of people that hated Sunbather because of the hype around the band, or their take on black metal. But, no matter how great and unique I found Sunbather, I would not want for Deafheaven to go out there and simply release Sunbather 2.0. That is not the case here, and even though I do not think that New Bermuda was able to top the band's previous album, that does not mean that it is not a great release in itself. What I do think is that Deafheaven is expanding their horizons even further, with more, new aspects being introduced in New Bermuda. And that makes me very excited about finding out where Deafheaven can take their music to next.
8.4 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
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