On the Endlessness of Deafheaven

"If the song is longer than four minutes and 20 seconds, you’re pushing it, buddy."

The first time I saw Deafheaven, I was at Primavera Sound in Spain and a n00b in Speedy Ortiz (it was maybe my tenth show?). The atmosphere was perfectly befitting: the sun had just set and we were by the ocean. I watched lurchy and shadowy figures dance around stage. What was peculiar about this dancing was that it was set to blast beats starting and stopping and shifting into half-time breakdowns. I was more shocked than amazed that music like this had made it to such a huge stage. I remember in my very early 20s, I got really into post-rock and post/melodic hardcore. Words I heard commonly at band practice were “epic” and “ambient.” This was a time, however, where bands such as Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Rós had reached their apex, and it wasn’t necessarily a gaudy and self-indulgent musical gesture to write a 15-minute-long song. You could have caught me with two reverb pedals and a few delays on my pedalboard; you could have caught 19-year-old me at an Envy or a Mogwai show. But, oh, how I have changed since then.

I now institute an unspoken, yet understood rule to all of my songs and recordings: If the song is longer than four minutes and 20 seconds, you’re pushing it, buddy. I really don’t have the attention span anymore. I have settled into the idea that not every song has to be an opus. If compared to the written word, the song can be as short as a quote or just one short phrase and, you know, you can look back on a body of work later full of cool passages and poems. Then, you can mix it all up in a bowl and you’ve got yourself an album.

Deafheaven defies this rule from the start of their new record, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. “You Without End” comes in at a whopping three whole minutes longer than four minutes and 20 seconds. Come on, DeafHeav! You’re killing me here. But, I pressed on and, frankly, the song is pretty boring. It moves too slowly, and any time the lead vocal comes in, it’s ill placed. Woof.

Luckily, for the sake of this review, the album takes a sharp turn in the next song, “Honey Comb.” It reminds me more of what I remembered them to be when I saw them live. The first scream and distorted chord hits you in the face like a cold glass of water. I really do enjoy when a band can take advantage of a full range of dynamics on their recordings. They maintain this pace for a while, and reach a point in the song about halfway through where the key suddenly becomes major and a weird guitar solo comes in. Not really my favorite move there, D-Heav.  I do like, however, how the next part gets into some Hum-influenced vibes. Songwriter Devin is trying to make cuts to this song structure already. I might have skipped to the next song at this point if I hadn’t agreed to write this review. I’m going to pretend that we faded the song out about minute nine or so.

“Canary Yellow” might be the highlight of the entire record for me. Every gesture and transition makes sense and there’s a vibe that I can follow for the entire song. The first heavy riff that comes in sounds fun as hell to play really loud live with a drummer like Daniel Tracy. They captured a great performance from him on this song—I wonder if he nailed all of those double bass kicks in the same take? By the time the blast beat comes in, I can’t imagine having the energy to keep that up, and there’s still four minutes left. What a beast. The bluesy progression that comes next fits so perfectly. I’m not even sure why it works, but it does. Then it segues into what eventually becomes a way cooler guitar solo than the previous song. It’s a great variation on the repeated line and connects all the phrases in a lyrical way. Nice job, D-Heav!

The following tune is called “Near.” It is possibly the easiest song to listen to on the record. The first chords actually reminded me of the intro to “Zombie” by the Cranberries, and my ears perked up for a second. After that last song, I feel like we deserve a break and, here, they have given that to us. The singer’s lower register sounds great with the shimmery delay effect added, and it’d be dope if they used this more often in their music.

The next few songs continue in similar Deafheaven fashion—anxiety-inducing rhythms and melodic tremolo picking with ghoulish screaming. I can’t really say I don’t like it overall, but, then again, I don’t think I can say that anything jumped out at me for the remainder of the album, either. I think that’s become my issue with rock music that goes on for so long in each song: it gets exhausting for any listener, even another musician, to stay focused on such slow-developing and long-winded songwriting. While the composer might be fully invested in the dramatic build up, the listener is unable or unwilling to follow, so, in effect, everything seems to sound the same. The transition to the next part becomes uninspired and less urgent. There are definitely other genres of music that employ a drawn-out vibe, or even an open-ended mindset in terms of composition, but I think they might be making better use of the harmonic tools available to us in modern western music. If you listen to anything by Debussy or A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, the density of these gestures seems more thought provoking, even though sometimes they take a little while to finish a song. I cannot believe I am comparing Deafheaven to John Coltrane, but I’ve gone and done it anyway.

I wasn’t given a numerical scale to judge this record on, but I will create my own scale. It will go from 1 (what I would have given the U2 album in my last review, i.e. fucking awful) to 10 (perfect in every way and I’m even going to show this to my mom). I give Ordinary Corrupt Human Love a 6.5—I think that it’s pretty good and I am definitely glad I was put onto it because I would not have thought to check it out on my own. But, above all, I’m proud that I have been sticking to my “4:20 or GTFO” rule of songwriting. I don’t have the patience anymore to write long compositions, but I suppose it’s OK if Deafheaven does it.

Devin McKnight is currently a working musician in Brooklyn, NY. You might have previously seen him playing guitar in such indie rock projects as Speedy Ortiz, Grass is Green, and Philadelphia Collins. At the moment, his main focus is the rock band he fronts, Maneka, which fuses elements of jazz, improvisation, math rock and shoegaze.