As 2012 came to a close, George Clarke and Kerry McCoy were living off of food stamps in a small apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco with six other roommates. They slept in closets and partitioned corners, licking their wounds after a year of touring with their band Deafheaven. While their debut album Roads To Judah was met with high praise, there wasn’t a large audience for their signature hybrid of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock. Consequently, the band amassed a mountain of debt on the road and lost 3/5ths of their members to the financial security of full-time employment.
In the rare moments of solitude within those cramped quarters of the Mission apartment, Clarke and McCoy began piecing together musical fragments that would become their sophomore album Sunbather, an album thematically fixated on the un-punk dream of climbing out of poverty and living among the leisure class. Despite the underground’s aversion to such open pining for comfort, stability, and luxury, Sunbather was a massive critical success and an unexpected crossover hit. With their new bandmates Dan Tracy (drums), Stephen Lee Clark (bass), and Shiv Mehra (guitar), Deafheaven began selling out clubs and landing high profile festival slots across North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. No one could have anticipated a band that drew from equal parts Weakling and My Bloody Valentine ascending to such heights, and that incomprehensibility added to the band’s singularity and allure.
Two years later, George Clarke and Kerry McCoy were living in their own apartments in LA. They no longer had to worry about where their next meal was coming from, and they could begin working on their new album, New Bermuda, in a proper rehearsal space as a full band. In many ways, it was an ideal scenario, but doubts lingered in the back of Clarke’s mind. “Sunbather yearned for something better. New Bermuda focuses on the idea of false promise, achieving something and wondering if it’s what you really wanted in the first place. Moving to LA, living with the person you love, meeting new people—you’re inexplicably let down by the situation, or let down by your own perception of it because you thought it was everything you wanted, but yet you still feel displaced.” McCoy shares that sentiment: “Sunbather sounds like people who have nothing but are satisfied with life. There’s an uplifting quality to it. But New Bermuda is a very tense record.”
That tension can immediately be felt in the opening charge of “Brought To The Water”, where McCoy excises the triumphant melodicism that typified Sunbather for bleak chord changes set against Clarke’s howled first line: “where has my passion gone?” McCoy cites death metal demigods Dissection and Morbid Angel, the blackened death pioneers Behemoth, and Cliff Burton-era Metallica as influences on the new album. Within the ten-minute span of “Brought To The Water”, you can hear the ferocity, discord, and dexterity of those heavier predilections, but you can also hear the electrified melancholy of post-hardcore and post-rock.
As New Bermuda progresses, Deafheaven travels further outside of their comfort zone, feasting on other niches of underground metal and offsetting the blunt force of their feral rage with more complex and nuanced beauty. On “Luna”, the band storms out of the gate with a snarling thrash riff, barrels through their trademark barrage of decimating drums and corrosive guitars, and seamlessly drops down into a morose clean-picked breakdown that would make Johnny Marr proud. A similar sophisticated and subdued pop element kicks off “Baby Blue”, before the band abruptly shifts into an amalgam of NWOBHM’s anthemic urgency and thrash metal’s racing chugs. There’s a brief comedown where the band veers into the musique concrete soundscapes and hushed melodrama of early Godspeed You! Black Emperor before “Come Back” resumes the band’s merciless assault of stampeding drums and vitriolic guitar harmonies, only to shift mid-song into the somber territories of 4AD’s early catalog.
Clarke says that the he came up with the idea of a “New Bermuda” to describe a new destination in life, a nebulous point of arrival, and an unknown future where things get swallowed up and dragged into darkness. It’s a premise most aptly demonstrated on the album closer “Gifts For The Earth”, where Clarke opens the song with the harrowing lyric “I imagine the gracious, benevolent ritual of Death” before describing a fatalistic descent to the ocean floor. Despite the morbid theme and tortured vocals, the song is perhaps the biggest musical departure for Deafheaven, with metal instrumentation largely excised in favor of lush, stately indie rock. Given Deafheaven’s inverse relationship with real world hardship and creative beauty, it’s only fitting that the most musically uplifting song on the album is the track about suicide.
Some of the most joyous music in history came from the most impoverished and oppressed societies. Meanwhile, some of the most nihilistic art has come out of countries of affluence and security. Music has always been a salve, an anodyne. But it’s also an outlet, a reminder of the ugliness lingering in the shadows of a sterilized world. Ultimately, art is a counterweight, and Deafheaven reinforces this principle by making the most punishing music of their career in the wake of their greatest success.
[Written by Brian Cook]