Album Review: Deafheaven - Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Deafheaven have long straddled a strange area of rock, where they simultaneously are called from various corners “too heavy” and “not heavy enough.” The claims (from outside sources) that they’re innovators of black metal have often received cries of anger from those entrenched in the scene, and even the band themselves are keen to point out that bands were combining shoegaze and metal for years before their formation. In fact, Deafheaven seem keen to eschew ‘metal’ as their most common tag, and on third album New Bermuda were striving towards arena-rock ambitions – albeit with a harsher, less accommodating edge.
On fourth album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love this aspiration is even more pronounced, and pretty much accomplished with magisterial aplomb. This was obvious from the lead single from the album, the 11-minute tour-de-force ‘Honeycomb’. It was a reintroduction to the band and their various abilities, as it shifts through several modes from the breakneck thrash-like opening minutes to the radio-rock middle section and a hazy melodic outro. The middle section in particular was divisive, being so beach-ready and catchy enough to have come off a Foo Fighters album, confounding those who wanted pure volume that thought they might be going soft. You can pretty much hear how little Deafheaven care about these reservations as Kerry McCoy solos through this section with flair just for the fun of it, and while the progression and motion are fairly straightforward, you have to marvel at the grace with which they do it, buffeting forward smoothly despite their audible mass. Their complete control over their sizeable carriage is made even more clear as they loosen the reins a little bit coming into the song’s final minutes, and allow their aural ocean liner to cruise off placidly into a dreamy expanse.
Any fans coming to Ordinary Corrupt Human Love hoping that the fleshy underbelly shown by Deafheaven on ‘Honeycomb’ would be kept more out of sight on the rest of the album are in for a minor shock. ‘You Without End’ opens the album with stately piano, much brighter and more beautiful than their previous piano passages like the one on the end of ‘Brought To The Water’. The wait for ‘You Without End’ to come clamouring down with a guillotine of sound is infinite, as Deafheaven instead ride the piano into a loving ode, with McCoy’s guitar licks sounding almost sexy and George Clarke’s first vocal on the album a soft backing coo, enmeshed in their romantic sound. This is a song of devotion, and even as Clarke finds his trademark growl, it only heightens the loving mood, sounding like Deafheaven setting sail into another’s bloodstream; wide eyed and bold, prepared to weather all shifts in temperament. The song could make sense in any live set from bands with grand ambitions, from Broken Social Scene to Muse, but the towering formation of it, and the sheer golden sunlight that radiates from it, is pure Deafheaven - whether it’s what people expect from them or not.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love follows an alternating pattern between “soft” and “hard” songs through its hour runtime (with ‘Honeycomb’ covering both bases). This means that the elegiac ‘Near’ is at the centre of the album; a song full of splashy cymbals and atmospheric guitar backlighting Clarke as he softly sighs a few simple but emotional lines. This builds slightly into a swirling elegy that echoes the delicate acrobatics of sombre Explosions In The Sky and the solemn rumination of Slowdive (Clarke even sounds a bit like Neil Halstead). Compared to the monolithic thrills on either side of it, you’d think ‘Near’ would crumble into forgettable, but as the exposed, beating heart at the centre of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love it makes perfect sense, and acts as a sturdy mooring point for the album to stop and catch a breather. The final quieter song is the penultimate ‘Night People’, where Clarke’s voice couples with Chelsea Wolfe’s, while loops of their whispers climb the walls. Daniel Tracy’s marching drums launch ‘Night People’ towards something grand, and Deafheaven intertwine the languorous into something undoubtedly affecting, though it does feel like just a rose bush in the garden of the grand and complex bastion that is their discography.
The parts that make the album an unassailable stronghold of sound are those where Deafheaven prove themselves as the muscle in the front line of experimental rock. After ‘Honeycomb’, the next example of this is following track ‘Canary Yellow’, which opens with a brightness and warmth that is true to its title, Deafheaven cruising on resplendent guitar plucks. Even when the volume does get ratcheted up, that natural glow and welcoming aura remains, while Deafheaven in unison ramrod their way through several minutes of utterly thrilling rock, which is truly symphonic in its descending and spiralling chords. In these moments Deafheaven has never sounded more like an axe-wielding arm, working in perfect synchronicity with pure power, from Chris Johnson’s bass and Shiv Mehra’s guitar as the ossein structural elements, right through to Clarke’s rasping voice as the sharp edge of the blade. When ‘Canary Yellow’ takes a very brief breather, Clarke’s guttural vocal echoing out over the vacuum left by the band’s sudden disappearance, you know they’re just pulling back for one big final swing. This comes hurtling down in a fireball of epic inspiration, McCoy soloing in and out of his bandmates, before it all culminates in gang vocals, providing Deafheaven’s first genuine sing-along moment, which is undeniably stirring, especially after the 12 minute deluge that has preceded it.
After hooking around the aforementioned ‘Near’, Deafheaven set sail on the album’s return voyage in ‘Glint’ – and the conditions are a lot more temperamental in this direction. Tracy’s percussion becomes more of a focal point at the start of ‘Glint’, a harbinger of what’s to come even as Deafheaven cruise nimbly over it with plucked and warped guitars glowing like a low-hanging moon. The song then opens up with a sudden paroxysm of guitar, like a tear in the fabric of the universe, splitting open the night sky and unleashing unchecked energy, led by Clarke’s vicious voice riding atop beastly riffs. Deafheaven paint a scene of epic scale here, with the bass as the current, pulling the whole vessel on, while the drums boom like thunder and crash like lightning, Clarke’s voice shreds like razor-edged wind whipping between the lashing rain brought on by the torrential guitars. ‘Glint’ buffets up against gigantic waves, as McCoy delivers his most outrageous and explosive licks heard on a Deafheaven album, and his strings sound like they’re practically steaming by the time ‘Glint’ glides out of the turbulence. The storm behind them, Deafheaven finish ‘Glint’ in celebratory mood; Clarke’s voice booms with vivacity, the normally stoic bass gives a little wiggle of glee, and McCoy delivers a flamboyant solo, as they bring the song heroically to its closure.
By the time Ordinary Corrupt Human Love reaches the concluding ‘Worthless Animal’, our players seem bedraggled but far from beaten. It’s the moodiest song on the album, with the guitars howling like sirens behind Clarke’s pugnacious presence and cavernous howl. Deafheaven take a farewell flourish, each of their elements woven into a thrumming mass, ducking and diving around each other like aircraft flying in formation. ‘Worthless Animal’ is far from the most innovative song they’ve put to tape, but again you have to sit back and appreciate the elegance of the playing and richness of the tone. This is the overall feeling with Ordinary Corrupt Human Love: Deafheaven’s sound may not have evolved in any major ways, but the minor ones are crucial. They’ve experimented with vocals, concentrated their musical chemistry, further polished their production, and tweaked their songwriting so that the transitions between movements in their songs are less sheer cliff-faces of fury and more lithe passages. All this, combined with some of the best songs they’ve ever written, makes Ordinary Corrupt Human Love the band’s most irrefutable credential as a leader in modern Rock.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 13th July 2018.