My last visit to Camden’s Koko was a strange one. Flanked by swathes of floral shirts wrapped around receptacles for trendy facial hair, my critical faculties began to kick in. Where were the indecipherable logos emblazoned on ill-fitting t-shirts? Where were the steel-toe boot-wearing crowd-killers? Where was I?
Contrary to my initial concerns, I hadn’t accidentally wandered into the right side of town – I’d merely forgotten who I was seeing. The hipster hordes filing into the venue simply reflected the fact that Deafheaven perhaps have less in common with your typical metal band than you might expect. Despite their black metal heritage, the San Franciscan quintet have long eschewed even the most contemporary of trends, as evidenced by everything from Sunbather’s shoegaze suffusion to the morbid introspection of New Bermuda. Deafheaven are perhaps the only metal band who could effortlessly soundtrack your summer (although the commission would be through the roof).
It’s in this spirit that Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’s opener – You Without End – comes drifting into earshot. Languorous guitar leads yawn and stretch themselves out amongst warm breezes of shimmering percussion, before an ethereal post-rock radiance comes bursting to the fore. Contemplative spoken-word passages emerge, calling forth imagery which is wrought with near-lurid sensory extremes and bathed in chiaroscuro. The equilibrium of light and dark is an apt microcosm of the record’s quest for balance, and the passage itself is complemented by simple 4-line rhymes, before serrated screams and soaring guitars bring You Without End to its end.
‘And then the world will know
Will know of you
Of all things love
Of all things true’
The simplicity adorning You Without End is wisely afforded to other aspects of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. The disembodied refrain of Near (‘Thought I saw you there / Wishing you were near’) soon establishes itself as a foundation from which weightless melodic permutations begin floating upwards, to explore the piercing blue sky they so vividly depict. Elsewhere, Night People cranks up the symbolism to conjure a vast expanse of an altogether different variety. The enormity of a ‘biblical sky speckled with flame’ bears down from above, as sonic textures morph seamlessly from gossamer-thin evaporating ambience to reverberating explosions of percussion. The track evokes a grandeur augmented by the fleeting spectre of Chelsea Wolfe, whose haunting lilt meshes with George Clarke’s in a darkly beautiful symbiosis.
Honeycomb is a different beast entirely. The acerbic riffs opening the 11-minute titan immediately slice through the reverie of surrounding tracks, allowing Clarke’s elemental howls to take centre-stage. This is perhaps the most progressive Deafheaven have ever been, channelling post-rock, black metal, rock ‘n’ roll & hardcore punk into an unbridled tour-de-force of creative breadth. Not to be outdone, Honeycomb’s successor (Canary Yellow) masterfully balances more sections than there are songs on the album, and is topped off with a full-band chant encircling the shouts of some presumably enraged demon king.
While the abstract, free-verse architecture characterising the narratives of Honeycomb and Canary Yellow is certainly familiar, lines like ‘I’m reluctant to stay sad / Life beyond is a field of flowers’ should be difficult to reconcile with a band whose last song was described as “a metaphor for drowning yourself”. Nonetheless, Deafheaven deftly permit these thematic facets to converge; as Clarke ruminates on love’s lifespan and witnesses a potential life flash before his eyes on Glint, his hitherto Kundera-esque thoughts sink into pure visceral fantasy.
‘I’m shrinking into your gown
Tearing the pink linen of your belly
Burying into your abdomen
And sewing the seam of your skin
Despite being precisely the kind of title you might imagine as the graffiti tag of a young Varg Vikernes, Worthless Animal functions instead as a summation not merely of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, but of Deafheaven’s entire oeuvre. Clarke’s poetic sensibilities lose all restraint, manifesting themselves immediately in tumbling, cadential assonance, and the narrative vacillates between fractured introspection and vivid imagery as musical tension builds and builds and builds. While Clarke attempts to find a place for the burden of empathy within nature’s callous jurisdiction, the piece blooms into a guitar motif sublime enough to make the most hard-hearted black metal purist weep. Its synaesthetic evocations of colour fit perfectly into Worthless Animal’s variegated tapestry of alabaster lips, canary yellow eyes and purple sand verbena, before the track’s struggle for meaning inevitably acquiesces to the same sounds of nature which opened the record.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a 7-song opus magnificent enough to put Kanye West’s surgical summer to shame. It’s a near-faultless exhibition of black metal’s growing pains, wherein the genre’s latest poster boys have opened their hearts and retracted their fangs. Now is the perfect time to sink your teeth into them – back in their wilder days, they’d have done the same to you.
Picks:Honeycomb, Canary Yellow, Night People, Worthless Animal