Black metal is a genre that appears more repugnant than most to outsiders who (gratefully) exist outside of its cult – a quick look at the Wikipedia page lets us know as much as we would ever need to know about many of the bands and their fanbase, with a list of traits that are completely daft at their best (Satanism, corpse face paint, purposefully bad musical production values) and absolutely abhorrent at their worst (murder, church burnings, Nazism, onstage self-mutilation etc.).
So it’s reassuring to know that Deafheaven, who can only loosely be aligned to the genre, are disliked and even despised by many hardcore black metal fans. These purists believe that embracing snatches of melody and elements of soft rock is an unforgivable act of “selling out”. Yet for many of the rest of us, which is everyone who loves music and hates misplaced misanthropic aggression, it’s a blessing. Clearly influenced by the spacey atmospherics of shoegaze as much as they are black metal, Deafheaven have often been labelled a “blackgaze” band, but in truth they’re more interesting than that or any other label might suggest. Their sonics, particularly on the accomplished breakthrough album Sunbather, point towards a multitude of influences from the epic space-rock suites of Pink Floyd to the machine-gun drumming of Metallica via the considered soundscapes of My Bloody Valentine and all those other 90s indie-rock stalwarts.
On Ordinary Corrupt Human Love they take their eclecticism even further, daring to start off their album with some pretty piano and twanging guitars that recall Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is on “You Without End”, an unquestionably soothing epic for much of its running time, which around the 3 minute mark incorporates a guitar part that surprisingly has a 70s arena-rock vibe. Far removed from the textbook heavy metal riffs and extreme music of the 80s and onwards, it recalls, amazingly, a band like Queen. The accessible pomposity is lifted straight from that band, and bleeds into “Honeycomb”, which could also fill stadiums with the deliberately epic sound of its guitars, but the drums and George Clarke’s vocals are far more ferocious than the first track, both in speed and aggression. That balance between metal and stadium rock is perhaps the reason why “Honeycomb” was chosen as the first single, yet by sitting on the fence it’s likely to offend the ears of multitudes of fans on both sides.
Never mind; the most likeable thing about Deafheaven is their refusal to allow themselves to be pigeonholed into a particular genre. And though “Honeycomb” is too long and intricately structured to really maintain its momentum, it often comes mighty close. What’s more, the track that follows, “Canary Yellow”, does achieve a fusion which should satisfy anyone with an open mind; its ringing guitars and melancholy descending chords are really quite moving, in a strange way, and as the rest of the band rages around him, it only seems to make guitarist Kerry McCoy hew more closely to a melodic aesthetic that in turn makes you want to return to the song’s grandiose mess once it’s over.
Elsewhere the attempts at prettiness are less successful. “Near” hinges on musical ideas that are too slight to sustain even its (relatively) short 5 minute running time, despite its quietness being a welcome respite from the chaos everywhere else (much like the interludes on Sunbather). “Night People” is a nice idea, a duet with singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe that indulges their penchant to smash together genres in an unpredictable way. But it’s an idea that unfortunately relies on George Clarke being able to stop screaming for a minute and sing, which, frankly, he can’t.
Clarke as a vocalist is the band’s biggest flaw – his screeching may keep the band rooted to its metal origins, but as a musical effect it has the subtlety of a blowtorch and an emotional range that can be rounded down to zero. It’s histrionic, irritating and teeters the band perilously on the brink of self-parody.
In fact, the only blessing of his approach is that it’s so extreme you can rarely discern the lyrics, which are the second biggest problem for the band. To be sure, it’s a relief that Deafheaven only occasionally dabble in the relentlessly silly occult fascinations of many metal bands (particularly black metal, of course). But bringing up the lyrics on Genius is to be confronted with their exasperating pretentiousness: “My love is a bulging, blue-faced fool/Hung from the throat by sunflower stems”, “I spied along the concrete canvas/A woman, her eyes brimming with vacancy/And bear her hugging barbiturates”, and “On purple sand verbena/I forgive its delusion” are all representative samples.
Of course, most metal fans ignore the lyrics – otherwise the genre would’ve been dead in the water decades ago. The primary appeal of metal is its ambition, power, venting of extreme hormones, and of course its superhuman musicality – people who respond to heavy music will ask themselves, repeatedly and with awe: how could human beings possibly do this?
Deafheaven might not have the capacity to illustrate ordinary human love, “corrupt” or otherwise. But at their best, they can certainly tap into that vein of wonder.