Heavy With a Twist
New Metal Albums Rewriting the Rulebook

One of my favorite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called Lost in Vegas.

It features two men from Vegas (naturally) named Ryan and George. They’re hip-hop heads by nature, and they appear to have grown up without hearing much in the way of other music. And on their YouTube channel, they take recommendations of rock and metal songs for them to listen to, and react to them live. That’s the entire concept, but oh man, the giddy joy of watching these two listen to, say, “Holy Wars” by Megadeth or “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” by Van Halen or anything – literally anything – by Metallica is invigorating.

What I love most about Lost in Vegas is watching these guys hear for the first time what I heard in these songs years ago. Hearing old songs through new ears has been a treat, especially old metal songs, because as I’ve grown older, I’ve moved more and more away from aggressive music. It’s not that I don’t still love me some Ride the Lightning, because I most certainly do. It’s just that the sound has grown a little stale for me, and it takes something pretty special to get me interested in new metal these days.

I’m not absolutely sure how this ended up happening, but I’ve found myself buying traditional metal records by the likes of Sepultura and Mastodon and even Metallica by rote, and enjoying them, but not really giving them my full attention. I sometimes even forget that Metallica gave us the mostly excellent Hardwired… to Self Destruct not long ago, and that I liked it. If you look at the metal albums I’ve been excited about in recent years, none of them are straight down the thrash lane. I think I’m looking to recapture that first-blush sense of awe I see in Ryan and George of Lost in Vegas, and after hearing the standard metal sound for 30 years, I’m more inured to it.

All of that said, I’ve been quite excited about the two metal albums I’m talking about today, and true to form, neither of them are traditional in any sense. First up is San Francisco’s Deafheaven, and I’ve been jazzed to hear their new album for months. It’s called Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and it follows two extraordinary albums, 2013’s Sunbather and 2015’s New Bermuda, albums that filled me with the same sense of discovery I felt when I heard Rust in Peace for the first time.

Deafheaven is, frankly, unlike any other metal band I’ve ever encountered. They’re almost insanely heavy, in a way that feels like the entire ocean crashing down on you. It’s the kind of heavy that is almost gentle after a while, enveloping you like a cocoon. The songs are long, routinely stretching past 10 minutes, and the band’s sense of dynamics is so good that at the end of each of these extended adventures, you feel like you’ve been somewhere. The fascinating thing about Deafheaven for me is that they’re a loud, abrasive band. The guitars fill whatever room they’re played in, and George Clarke’s vocals are demonic things – his screams and screeches are like sandpaper against your skin. But with all of this, they’re probably the most devoted metal band on earth to the concept of musical beauty.

Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is beautiful. It’s even more gorgeous than its predecessors, and it feels purposeful – the first sound you hear is piano, there are plenty of clean guitar sections, and Clarke’s lyrics are pure poetry. (I’m not kidding about that. Here is a bit from standout “Honeycomb”: “I’m reluctant to stay sad, life beyond is a field of flowers, my love is a nervous child lapping from the glowing lagoon of their presence, my love is a bulging, blue-faced fool hung from the throat by sunflower stems…”) The band can still bring the heavy, and it does throughout, but even that heaviness is layered and full of light.

My favorites here are the three longer ones. The aforementioned “Honeycomb” is a powerhouse, bigger in sound than I can even describe. There are moments when they sound like a straight-ahead rock band here, lead guitars spinning out melody, and the sound gets gentler near the end, taking on post-rock qualities. The chiming guitars that close out “Honeycomb” are magical. “Canary Yellow” is a masterpiece, beginning like a Cure song, building into a monolith and then closing in harmony. “On and on we choke on an everlasting handsome night,” Clarke screams. “My lover’s blood rushes right through me, wild, fantastic.” “Glint” and closer “Worthless Animal” are similarly superb, building and crashing and building again to an extraordinary climax.

This is the kind of band for whom four-minute songs are interludes, but I don’t want to give short shrift to tracks like “Near” and “Night People,” which contribute immensely to the sound and flow of this record. I’m not sure if this is my favorite of Deafheaven’s efforts – there’s something a little more human about this one, where Sunbather felt totally alien – but it is certainly the most delicate and instantly appealing of them. I feel like this band is on a journey, and the final destination is one of almost impossible beauty, and I’m very much enjoying being along for the ride.

Between the Buried and Me don’t traffic in beautiful, but they do offer the other side of my brain – the one fascinated by equations and logic puzzles and plot twists – plenty to chew on. They started as an intelligent post-metal band, but have since evolved into one of the most complex and mind-boggling acts on earth. The series of albums starting with 2007’s Colors is one of the most dense bodies of work I can name, each record worthy of years of study. They have offered up nothing but conceptual pieces for years, giving us difficult plotlines and music that sounds virtually impossible for five people to play. (I’ve seen them live. They can do it.)

A few months ago I reviewed the first half of their new album, Automata. For reasons passing my understanding, Sumerian Records chose to break Automata up into two EPs, rather than issuing the complete work at once. Now that I have that complete work with the release of Automata II, that decision makes even less sense. I understand that the record company makes more money when I pay twice for something, but as a whole, Automata is the same length as its predecessor, Coma Ecliptic, and far shorter than The Parallax II, still the best BTBAM album. I’ve heard the band suggest that the density of the material over an extended running time might be too much for audiences, hence the split, but come on. We’re fans of this stuff. We know what we’re getting.

We get about 33 minutes of it on Automata II, and it’s remarkably ambitious and adventurous stuff. The first thing they hit you with is the album’s 13-minute centerpiece, “The Proverbial Bellow,” and within two minutes they’ve out-Dream Theatered Dream Theater. The band’s fascination with synthesizers and keyboard sounds hits its zenith here, some portions of this song feeling more like a film score than anything else. It’s an incredible piece of music, packing in an album’s worth of melodies, twists and turns, and it gets heavy as hell, Tommy Rogers whipping out that trademark growl around the four-minute mark.

Automata is the story of a man whose dreams are broadcast to the world for entertainment, and in this final chapter, this man confronts the company behind it, called Voice of Trespass, and gets his happy ending. Positive resolutions are new ground for this band – their last two concept records ended in death – and they’ve broken new musical ground at the same time. “Glide” is a two-minute interlude built around an accordion figure, of all things, while “Voice of Trespass” is BTBAM’s first foray into jazz-metal. The song features a full horn section brassing its way through the din, and it’s kind of awesome. Rogers puts on an Alice Cooper growl and acts as ringmaster for this circus, and it’s convincing and captivating. And then there’s the callback to Automata I’s “Condemned to the Gallows,” which might not feel as impressive had they issued this album in one piece.

Ten-minute closer “Grid” brings us back to Between the Buried and Me’s signature sound, and it’s as complicated and satisfying an ending as you could ask for. It still strikes me as amazing that these five guys can not only come up with music this tricky and intricate, but can keep it all straight and play it on stage. Just trying to keep the myriad sections of “Grid” in order in my mind would be beyond my musical abilities. That they continue to seek out new territory while building on this sound is beyond impressive.

I do wish we’d been given Automata all at once, since it works best as a single piece of music. But release strategy aside, this album contains exactly what BTBAM fans have come to expect from this band, and several innovations in their sound as well. As a 68-minute work, it stands with the best of what BTBAM has offered, and if putting it out in bite-sized chunks helped people come to terms with it and absorb it, then it was worth it. It’s music that deserves the extra time it takes to unravel it and fully understand it. With Automata, they have once again proven that they are nowhere near typical.

Next week, probably MXPX and Punch Brothers. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.