I feel a lot of gratitude toward the band Deafheaven for my growth as a music listener. Back in 2013, I encountered Deafheaven for the first time like a lot of people probably did: the release and massive acclaim of Sunbather, the band’s second studio album. While I noted this acclaim as soon as it happened, I hesitated to listen to Deafheaven and this supposedly great album. My reason is that Deafheaven is a black metal band, and Sunbather is considered a black metal album. At that point in time, even heavy metal or alternative metal were often a bit too much for me, making me often claim that it was one of the few types of music that I had no taste for whatsoever. Black Metal had me almost “clutching at my pearls” so to speak. Ironically, what changed my mind was the supposed controversy around Deafheaven, where black metal fanbases have trashed the band over what they perceive to be a attack on the sanctity of black metal by incorporating other styles into the basic black metal sound. Given that their controversial sound was compared to My Bloody Valentine (a shoegazing band) and Explosions in the Sky (a post-rock band) convinced me entirely.
And I am glad I was, because Sunbather would prove to be the album so good, so varied, and so uncompromisingly black metal even while it is both of those previous things that it opened my mind to the possibilities of metal, of all shades. It is an easy 10/10 album that blows me away every time I listen to it, to this day. After listening to Roads to Judah, the band’s first album, and New Burmuda, the band’s last album before now, it is clear that the band has been committed to maintaining their black metal style while also slowly getting closer to the post-rock and shoegazing sounds they have alway incorporated. Sunbather was still the most clearly cinematic of their entire discography, but it seemed the band was moving towards the extremes of their sound. And their new album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love both falls in line with this and totally destroys my expectations.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is only seven tracks long, but each has its own individual and cohesive elements to the album. In the end, what we are experiencing is a long suite about love itself. The start of the album, “You Without End,” is an exercise in grandiose melancholy, punctuated with exclamation points by the screaming, rough vocals. This song polarized my opinions between listens at first. Sometimes I was taken in completely by the grand post-rock gestures, and other times I thought they were cliched and trite. Sometimes I thought the dramatic poetry of the spoken-word segueing into the harsh shrieked vocals of George Clarke was surprisingly effective, and other times I felt it so out of place that it took me out of the song altogether. However, after quite a few listens, I find the virtues of the song are just too strong to ignore, and it has grown into one of my unqualified favorite songs on the record. It brings the listener into the dynamism and melodrama at place here, with all of it working together because Deafheaven straight up goes there. They hold nothing back, and it pays off here in “You Without End.”
“Honeycomb” is the next track, and it starts with a tie-in from the outro of “You Without End,” a slurred guitar part, before exploding into metal. If the shrieks sounded out of place to anyone on the last track, I am sure this was more what they had in mind. Still, the band is not quite as dizzying as they have been in the past, with most of the specific melodies standing out a bit more. The themes are continued here of looking at love without the rose-tinted glasses, and the extremely visual imagery works to this song’s benefit, as it does on the track before and ones to come. Unfortunately, this song also sees the first and really only big misstep on the album coming in the song’s latter half, where it almost feels like the energy and dynamism permeating the first half are attempted to be kept up, but without really having anything left. It is like the band felt the need to keep going in the song, but ran out of musical ideas halfway through, relying instead on a frankly boring metal riff played on repeat followed by the same except with a post-rock riff.
“Canary Yellow” starts off in a bad place, not picking things up at all after the unnecessarily extended end of “Honeycomb.” I like a good dreamy melody and shoegazing swirl as much as anybody, but Deafheaven really fall short in delivering here. I actually feel like the band tries a bit too hard to mix the shoegazing and post-rock melodies at the same time, making both be at the forefront at once. This could have worked if enough variety was here, but it sounds less enrapturing and more unintentionally disrupting here. “Canary Yellow” soon shifts to the black metal side of Deafheaven, but the instruments and even the vocals here at first fail to sound truly convicted about their own ideas. Luckily, this does not last long, and “Canary Yellow” erupts into a truly dizzying display of guitars and drums when the tone gets sinister, almost exactly at the halfway point of the song. In fact, the post-rock influenced section that kicks in at the eight-minute mark is probably the best of its kind on the whole album. Later, the band is even throwing in a cleaner, low-pitched chorus of singers to drearily sing “On and on and on we choke on” with Clarke screaming “our lover’s blood.” Somehow, “Canary Yellow” morphs from a relatively weak dream pop track to the most powerful metal song on the album, ultimately making the whole experience worth it for the payoff.
“Near” despite being five minutes long, marks the first interlude of the album, but like on Sunbather, the interludes are no time to rest on the album. This is another example of the previous song affecting the next, with “Near” getting the benefit “Canary Yellow” did not get from “Honeycomb.” Overall, the track is just a repeated melody with the lines “Thought I saw you there/Wishing you were near” and “Can I rest for awhile?” being the only lyrics, but the power of “Canary Yellow” leading directly into this song gives “Near” and these sparse lyrics a profoundly haunting quality that made it one of my favorites. By itself, it does not hold up, yet as part of the album experience here, “Near” is a flawless middle track in the experience.
“Glint” comes next, and it is another song that I have varying opinions on depending on the listen. This track is a lot more steady and consistent through its ten-minute run-time than the previous epics of “Honeycomb” and “Canary Yellow.” The beginning might have the same post-rock center that is evident throughout this record, but, overall, “Glint” probably is the track most akin to music of Deafheaven’s past, with songs like “Brought to the Water” and “Dream House” coming immediately to mind here. Further, the ugliness that showed up from time to time on previous songs is replaced with a much more optimistic view, perhaps no more evident than in the lines “Imagining us clasping hands in holiday/Imagining you growing older/Growing somehow more beautiful.” The melody constantly features upward-climbing note progressions and building volume. Instrumentally, the track features much more of the Black Metal guitars and drum work here that Deafheaven has used in the past, and does this through almost all of the song. It is a bit ironic to me that the song most indebted to the typically sinister black metal sound is also the brightest track, though that was perhaps Deafheaven’s point which keeps it interesting to me.
“Night People” follows after this, and it is largely just a plot-device song, dropping back down from the tonal high of “Glint” back down to a sort of melancholy sorrow that preceded it. Musically, there is not much to speak of other than the fact that it is piano driven and features both a male and female vocalist singing in clean vocals. However, there are a few moments here in the lyrics that stand out, such as “And the black sand of your body slipped through” being repeated by both vocalists, followed by the melody growing more dramatic. It was nice enough, but I did not feel nearly as moved as maybe I should have. Still, it is part of the experience and does its job well-enough to get the listener to the final song.
This final song being another 10 minute epic in the way of “Worthless Animal.” If the title did not already give it away, this is not a bright and shiny track like “Glint,” with the melody largely remaining quite dower. As good as the post-rock melodies work here, I particularly like how nasty and moist the vocals sound here, adding even more of a dark tone to the whole proceedings. The guitar work is amazing as well in this section: clean and smooth yet unsettling at the same time. At that point, the song explodes a bit more, though not in much of a metal direction. Instead, the same sort of sound remains, just with distorted and higher volume instruments before the vocals kick in. This leads again into another guitar section that calls back to the best part of “Canary Yellow,” which sounded even better here. Honestly, I feel like “Worthless Animal” is the best single song on the record overall, going beyond anything else on here and standing as its own beast of epic structures, varied textures, and dramatic scope that wraps this album out pretty much perfectly.
It is amazing how Ordinary Corrupt Human Love manages to have its best track lead and end the album, yet I honestly think there was only one real downturn from here to there, even if that period ends up being relatively long overall of what is basically sub-par for Deafheaven. Perhaps most remarkable here is that Deafheaven have managed to pull off the feat of inverting their own basic formula and coming out on the other side with nearly another masterpiece. Sunbather used black metal as its core sound, added the flourishes of shoegazing, and utilized post-rock structures in a limited capacity. New Bermuda largely kept this, while seemingly going further into the shoegazing side of their music. Nonetheless, on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven made post-rock the core of their music, used shoegazing conventions in a limited fashion, while adding in black metal flourishes to keep it interesting. It is quite remarkable. The experiment, the ideas here are clearly successful in their implementation, nearly across the board, and the result is one of the year’s best albums.