I cover a lot of metal that is proudly underground, irreverent to current trends or making any concessions to gain a wider audience. Stuff that is special to me and a few diehards who really get it. However, I also love bands that break and give people not familiar with metal a pathway into what makes it essential music. You can’t stay with the same bangers forever. That is why Deafheaven are a group I hold near and dear. Their last record, New Bermuda, took a hard stance at going overground, pushing their intensity even further and drawing from thrash and death metal and retaining their style while proudly exclaiming that, yes, they are a metal band. A ferocious one at that, one that took underground sounds and gave them new vitality. Metal might be ancient at this point, but it can still have a young heart.
And sometimes, a young heart likes to play tricks. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, their fourth and latest record, is confounding upon first listen: it starts with delicate piano, not shimmering metal chords; there are vocal duets; it’s lighter and brighter. Deafheaven haven’t softened up — they’re at their most confident, their most focused, their most open-- and Ordinary is the masterwork they’ve been reaching towards.
Ordinary begins with Deafheaven’s version of a piano ballad: “You Without End.” Waves come crashing in, providing an undercurrent for piano. The tenderness that’s been simmering under their music comes to the fore. It’s also filled with longing, a product of the band returning to San Francisco, their former home, to make the record. Singer George Clarke’s shrieks are whispered, not the black metal bravado he usually conjures. There are light touches of Envy’s post-rock influenced hardcore. “End” is not full speed ahead, and Deafheaven are smart to kick off Ordinary that way.
“To set the tone of the record, we wanted to give a more extreme example of the newer influences. Listening back, I felt like this was bold…this is gonna raise some eyebrows, but that’s fine,” Clarke told me last week.
It’s a change from coming in glimmering and bulldozing, and it’s one sign of the band as changed people. Ordinary is not a sober record, yet it’s influenced by the collective sobriety of the band members when making it. Clarke in particular knew he needed to chill when he found that he was still on tour mode when not on tour.
“You know that old stereotype of the wife at home who pours her first glass of wine at 1, then it starts at noon, then it starts at 11, that was me,” he said. “We get home, and I have a little bit of money and nothing to do, and I’ve been drinking heavily for the last 30 days on tour, so why don’t I just keep it going?”
Keeping clean for making Ordinary brought out something fundamental, yet refreshing.
“We put all of our focus into being creative, and in part, I think that’s why we produced such a guitar-centric record,” Clarke said. “We got our confidence as songwriters. When you get into a party routine and you stop making things, you forget that you enjoy making things.”
Yeah, no shit it’s guitar-centric, it’s a metal record. True, but guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra are stretching themselves out, and it’s what makes Ordinary Deafheaven’s most rewarding effort. This is their second record as a team — Mehra joined as a session guitarist touring for Sunbather, but became a full member with Bermuda, whereas McCoy and Clarke are the original members. “Canary Yellow” has recognizably ‘70s guitar hero lead work, something that would suit the bombast of the bands they’ve been opening for. (That Ghost record could have used more of it for sure.) It’s so unexpected that it’s like a hidden treat, something that you pick up on only after a few listens and can’t imagine how they didn’t use this before.
Deafheaven always had a Britpop influence. McCoy, who Clarke noted has a “healthy obsession” with Oasis, always threw it in, yet on Ordinary it’s more pronounced than ever. It’s quite noticeable in Ordinary’s reprieves, like the mid-album instrumental “Near.” Dominated by clean guitar and organs, it aims for the simplicity back when McCoy and Clarke were kids freshly signed to Deathwish and figuring themselves out, while displaying growth from a band who can go toe to toe with opening for Slipknot or Lamb of God.
Black metal is still at the core, and not only is there still plenty of that here, it stands out and grows even more furious. “Glint” is every blast from Bermuda compressed into one, like everything before was just a training exercise. It will always remain there as a tribute to two Bay Area bands: Weakling, one of the first bands to make the case for USBM as a legitimate force, and Ludicra, whom Clarke specifically named as one of the bands that attracted him and McCoy to move to San Francisco in 2009. Both forged their own paths, and even by heading towards less outwardly metal paths, they’re honoring those bands.
“We’re kind of getting of the crutch of the blastbeat,” Clarke said. “It still sounds very much like us.”
Clarke stresses that Ordinary is centered on empathy. From Sunbather on, even with Bermuda’s Darkness, Deafheaven have felt inviting in spite of song length and intensity. This is no more apparent than in the last track, “Worthless Animal.” Guitars are at their sunniest, especially towards the end where they double up on the aspirational wind-down that made Sunbather’s “Dream House” one of their defining songs. This all totally clashes with the story Clarke presents of encountering a homeless man in Los Angeles in distress.
“You have to have patience and empathy and understand, especially in LA where homelessness is such a problem, and this guy was in the middle of the road and this other guy started attacking him,” he said. “That song is essentially taking out the man who is hurting this homeless person for no reason. I compare the homeless to a deer eating and the man as a dog.”
Metal does lend itself to cruelty. It’s not meant for everyone, even if it shouldn’t be divorced from music as a whole. Deafheaven harness metal and shake its cruelty out, revealing an ultimate humanity. “Animal” is the most direct example, using aggression as compassion, as Clarke sings “When a fawn stumbles into the road…I forgive its delusion” and then “search to pin the legs of the stalking dog that lends its teeth to sticky, sad bedlam.” Even in this personal example, it has a bigger meaning.
“I have felt very bogged down by the cruelty and the thoughtlessness that comes from our current political climate,” Clarke said. “But it’s also important to have reprieve and not let it exhaust you.”
Later, Clarke boiled down the album’s concept by giving a mission statement: “I’ve always just been about feeling.” That sounds simple, yet it gets at the core of what not only defines Ordinary, but Deafheaven themselves. A lot of great metal makes you feel, and sometimes that feels intimidating, but it’s essential. Wear your armor or don’t: just make sure you get something out of it.
Honestly, who cares how divisive they are? That’s an old topic, and it doesn’t get to what makes them a great band, and what makes Ordinary one of the year’s best records. It is very much a metal record of now, even if not explicitly such. You are a part of this world. Don’t think otherwise.
Stream the album on NPR.