The opener on Deafheaven’s new album ends with the line, “A multiverse of fuchsia and violet surrenders to blackness now.” It diminishes any suspicion that the San Francisco post-metal group would come out of the bright pink haze of 2013’s wildly successful Sunbather attempting to do the same thing twice. To be fair, many bands would. After that smash sophomore LP, Deafheaven found themselves running an international victory lap that only seemed to end this summer with the lead-up to their third album. The fame and success seemed to be all that Sunbather’s longing, poetic lyrics strove for: a lavish, carefree lifestyle. Yet with new surroundings came new fears, and consequently an encompassing and nearly comforting black void of uncertainty and blind acceptance of that which you can’t control. If you swam in Sunbather’s warmth, you’ll sink to where sunlight can’t reach you in New Bermuda.
On “Luna”, the new album’s second track, frontman George Clarke wearily rebukes the lifestyle of which he dreamed while gripping the steering wheel in Sunbather’s title track, finding himself “sitting quietly in scorching reimagined suburbia,” as if looking out a window of a beautiful home and seeing rough edges both outside and inside himself. That disillusionment makes way for an exploration of a much harsher style than what the band has become known for. Clarke’s vocals are fierce and distinguished, and despite the romantic imagery of his lyrics, he’s honed his howls and screeches to be demanding and often overpowering. Meanwhile, guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra opt for a sound rooted in the mid-’80s Bay Area thrash that would nurture their evident and passionate love of metal.
Favoring experimentation (rather than settling into the “blackgaze” sound) works well for Deafheaven, especially since it was their critics that essentially coined the term “blackgaze.” New Bermuda thrives on variety. For the first time on a Deafheaven album, staccato triplet riffs make a welcome appearance, as does McCoy’s fantastically melodic, Kirk Hammett-esque solo on “Baby Blue”. Meanwhile, drummer Dan Tracy becomes the album’s overall highlight, having been given the opportunity to play more than just blast beats. Where Sunbather may have favored the guitar, New Bermuda leaves space for Tracy to hold his own against — and even show up — McCoy and Mehra’s atmospheric post-rock picking. That’s not to pit band members against each other, though; the three-and-a-half-minute instrumental that eases in “Baby Blue” works because of the chemistry the current lineup has developed after nearly three years of playing together. Closer “Gifts for the Earth”, the point at which the album’s genre-bending is at its clearest and most surprising, would clumsily see itself out and trip over the door jamb if not for the sort of singular, unified vision that powers Deafheaven as a five-piece.
That very vision also transforms what once may have been dreamy, shoegaze-y instrumentals into self-reflective, affirming songs centered on an “endless truth of instability and futility” (as emphasized on “Come Back”). Where some might have connected Sunbather’s post-rock influences to bands like Explosions in the Sky and Russian Circles, New Bermuda finds the band paying homage to Godspeed You! Black Emperor in a melancholic moment at the end of “Baby Blue”, when a recorded voice provides commuter information for the George Washington Bridge. It all feels poignantly familiar to the Arco AM/PM recording on “Storm”, from Godspeed’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Even the brief instrumental that begins “Come Back” feels like Godspeed, and with the album’s general acceptance of disillusionment coupled with urban and blacktop imagery, the echo is fitting.
Barely two years after Sunbather, it’s remarkable that Deafheaven could turn on a dime and produce an album like New Bermuda. Its audacity and stylistic shifts may have resulted in an album that’s not quite as much like coming home as Sunbather, but it shows a genuine and fascinating maturation in a band that deserves to remain in the spotlight for all the right reasons.
Essential Tracks: “Brought to the Water”, “Come Back”, and “Baby Blue”