Feature by Chris DeVille via Stereogum
After the soothing sound of the ocean tide, the first instrument you hear on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a piano. Soon its somber neoclassical arpeggios are intertwining with the yearning slide guitar that has marked many of the most pleasant interludes on previous Deafheaven tracks, and before long the song has bloomed into an elegant suite not unlike the second half of “Layla.” A loosely swaying drumbeat lifts the music to a low cruising altitude. A woman’s voice low in the mix reads poetry about a transformative twilight stroll, evoking smoke-blinded eyes and geese “shrieking into what was left of the evening.” It all builds up so naturally and gradually that when Kerry McCoy’s guitar goes whipping upward into “November Rain” theatrics and George Clarke’s harsh black metal growl finally enters the frame, they feel of a piece with the beauty surrounding them — clouds that ominously gather for some thunderclaps before dispersing without a storm.
The downpour eventually does roll in on “You Without End,” but even at the peak of its fury it never approaches the blistering intensity that has historically introduced a Deafheaven album. Consider it a thesis statement for Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Although unmistakably the work of the band that gave us twin masterpieces Sunbather and New Bermuda — with help from producer Jack Shirley, their very own George Martin figure — these seven tracks err on the side of Deafheaven’s most accessible impulses. Sublime atmospheric beauty lingers over everything like a haze. Gnarly classic rock riffs rip across the chaos as if beamed in from FM radio. Clarke and his bandmates actually sing a few times, and gorgeously so. It’s the prettiest and least metal album yet from a band sometimes maligned for being too pretty and not metal enough.
Among skeptics, the rap against Deafheaven has always been that they’re a token fashion accessory for indie poseurs who know nothing about metal. This is at least partially true; as an indie poseur who knows nothing about metal, I’ve been a devoted Deafheaven fan ever since Sunbather fulfilled the promise of debut Roads To Judah and gave them their big crossover moment five years ago. Where many of their peers and influences have not connected with me, this group’s fusion of black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze triggered a violent euphoria in the depths of my soul. Deafheaven satisfied a hunger I didn’t know I had for grippingly visceral yet blindingly beautiful heavy rock music. The scene politics around them are as meaningless to me as the music itself is meaningful. Many of my fellow dilettantes felt the same way, but so did quite a few lifelong metal zealots: Who cares what you call it when it rules this hard?
Deafheaven, however, seemed to pay at least some heed to the authenticity police. Their first album after becoming media darlings, 2015’s New Bermuda, wasn’t a straightforward black metal release by any means, but it edged closer to that polarity. The dreamy, poppy qualities that gave Deafheaven entry into the critical mainstream were riding shotgun, conceding the driver’s seat to absolute combustible brutality. New Bermuda was louder and harsher than the already loud, harsh Sunbather, less like being overtaken by a wave of magnificent translucent destruction and more like being viciously beaten by an army of invaders. Whether this was a purposeful response to the backlash was unclear — and fortunately New Bermuda was brain-fryingly spectacular regardless of motive — but the album struck me as a band working hard to show off its metal bonafides.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love swings hard in the opposite direction — or rather, at times it swings quite gently and gracefully. Rather than the ennui of Sunbather or the foreboding of New Bermuda, this is an album about love and intimacy and nature and epiphany. It sounds like the natural creative runoff from the placid, bougie LA life described in our recent cover story, the healing aftermath following years of hard living. Which is not to say every song forgoes Deafheaven’s signature heaven-collapsing-into-hell bombast the way “You Without End” does. Advance singles “Honeycomb” and “Canary Yellow” plus “Glint” add up to more than half the album’s run time, and all of them find this band doing what they do best, crafting grandiose genre-agnostic symphonies that build to peaks of ecstatic celestial bombardment. All the other elements of this band’s sound feel so much more monumental when leading up to an onslaught of blast beats, gleaming tremolo noise, and shrill indecipherable shrieking.
Yet even those songs in the classic Deafheaven mold add new details to the formula, be it the group chant that courses through the end of “Canary Yellow” or the Camaro-jamming Thin Lizzy breakdown in “Honeycomb” that regularly moves me to gleeful air-guitar outbursts. It’s clear Deafheaven are pushing not to repeat themselves and to continue expanding their arsenal. Sometimes, as on “Near” and “Night People,” that amounts to a disarmament. These are songs on which the band never revs up beyond a baseline shoegaze drift and Clarke trades his usual rasp for conventional melodic singing, in the latter case accompanied by Chelsea Wolfe. His voice is deep and maudlin, accentuating the drama in entirely new ways — not least of which the ability to make out what he’s singing about without the aid of a lyrics sheet. (Some of the album’s more impressionistic lyrics — say, “I have wondered about the language of flowers/ And you, elaborate mosaic, greeting me,” or “And alabaster lips unseal/ So I may recall the soft timbre of whisper in its stillness” — are better left obscured by screaming, when they can embody whatever meaning you want them to.)
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is bookended by two songs that split the difference between your usual Deafheaven cacophony and those decidedly scaled-back ballads. It begins with the aforementioned “You Without End,” the expansively pretty overture that has drawn more than one comparison to Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. And it concludes with “Worthless Animal,” a 10-minute post-metal epic that just builds and builds and builds, like the soundtrack to the raddest flight simulator of all time. As Clarke barks out more surrealist gobbledygook about “the ladies cradling streams of buttermilk current” and such, his bandmates rise skyward, vigorously careen through turbulence, and eventually soar out into the great unknown, presumably to discover another chapter of the Deafheaven story. In the meantime, we’ve got this one, presenting masters of tumult giving peace a chance, still capable of demolishing you but sometimes content to let beauty escape into the world unscathed.