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Sunbather, Deafheaven’s breakthrough album, was one of the best records of 2013. An abrasive, sonically experimental and challenging album, albeit one slightly overshadowed by the fact that an abrasive, sonically experimental and brashly challenging album by a much more established artist saw its release the same week. Sunbather went to become one of the sleeper hits of the year, pushing the little-known San Francisco band into a somewhat mainstream spotlight. Marrying the ethereal sounds of shoegaze with the downright brutal noise of black metal, Sunbather pushed Deafheaven into a corner. Having delivered one of the best records of the past decade, it was difficult to imagine where they’d go next. Unlike similar groups like My Bloody Valentine (whose frontman Kevin Shields went, according to himself, insane following the group’s 1991 classic Loveless) or Burzum (who burned down a couple of churches), Deafheaven haven’t waited long after their breakthrough album to release a follow-up.
After about half a minute of backward guitar sounds, ‘Brought to the Water’ segues into a machine gun-like flurry of down strokes that sounds as though its coming from James Hetfield’s right hand circa 1984. Immediately it is clear that New Bermuda is an entirely different animal to Sunbather. Kerry McCoy was the only instrumentalist in Deafheaven when they recorded that album, and he has alluded to the fact that this forced him to use big chords, effects trickery and dizzying whammy bar attacks in an effort to sound bigger then he actually was. A now stable line-up means that there is a clearer distinction between the lead and rhythm guitar parts, and as a result, New Bermuda sounds far more constructed. McCoy reveals himself to be a competent – if not occasionally generic – thrash player. He is an unbelievably talented songwriter, which is what ultimately triumphs over his other indulgences, and against such a solid backing it is genuinely exciting when he shows off with a lengthy solo.
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However, rather than just make a straight-up metal album, Deafheaven retain some of their experimental elements, which can be a bit jarring. ‘Brought to the Water’ features flourishes of Blur-esque guitar towards its middle section that just doesn’t work and a piano outra that feels laughably tacked on. ‘Baby Blue’, the album’s mid-point, starts with some swirling post rock guitars that bounce and chime off each other, creating an ocean of depth until about two minutes in when George Clarke’s vocals enter. At this point the song seems to forget what to do, turning into a chugging instrumental that sounds completely anonymous. On subject of George Clarke, his vocals are one of this albums undeniable weaker points. Against a shoegaze production, his voice added untold amounts of atmosphere, but on New Bermuda his pitch is front and centre. Foregoing a raw display of emotion this time around, he much more self-consciously sings, which suits the songs but isn’t anything special per se. Certainly, it lacks the gut punch that you might expect from him.
That said, when New Bermuda is good, it’s really good. ‘Luna’ feels unspeakably epic, combining pummelling blast beats with a guitar that transforms from Dave Mustaine to Johnny Marr in the space of five minutes, creating something that you can honestly feel the energy radiating from. ‘Come Back’, the album’s second single, displays a virtuoso’s understanding of peaks and valleys, conjuring tensions by alternating between the brutal and the ethereal. The eventual coda, a Gilmour-like interplay between acoustic and slide guitar is easily one of the most satisfying moments that Deafheaven have ever committed to record. If most of New Bermuda falls on the metal spectrum, then final track ‘Gifts for the Earth’ moves in the opposite direction. The record concludes with Clarke throwing his growls against a backing that sounds as though its come from Foals’ more technically-gifted cousins.
New Bermuda succeeds by not trying to be Sunbather Part II. Deafheaven show a lot of maturity by realising that this album is the type of thing that comes along once in a career, if you’re lucky. While it might lack the coherence and the raw emotional wallop of Sunbather, New Bermuda still marks out the San Francisco natives as a band that is truly impossible to pin down. Towards the very end, they liberally quote Oasis’ ;Champagne Supernova’ (with more wah, naturally). This could be a nod, a wink or maybe even a hint about album #4’s direction. If nothing else, it’s strangely hypnotic.