There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be worried about this album, and initially, that sounds absolutely ridiculous. After all, this is Deaf Havana here, the band that’s made one of the biggest breaks from Britrock to rootsy, world-weary Americana that, particularly on last year’s All These Countless Nights, cumulated in a career high-point that continues to grow in excellence even today. With Rituals though, the direction that Deaf Havana seem to be taking is a stark contrast, moving from flavours of blues, folk and country to more fashionable alt-pop tones, replete with the synthetic, neon qualities that’s found favour for so many bands in the public eye. But when Deaf Havana have always been so much better at doing their own thing than hopping aboard any trends (it’s one of the reasons why Meet Me Halfway, At Least remains their weakest album), it’s not wrong to feel a pang of skepticism surrounding what this album can actually do. Couple that with the fact that this is arriving only eighteen months after the last rather than their traditional three or four years, and Rituals isn’t exactly standing as a paragon of confidence on first impressions.
Thankfully it’s not that bad, but considering the three-album home run of Fools & Worthless Liars, Old Souls and All These Countless Nights that Deaf Havana have had, they should know where their biggest strengths lie, and for the most part, it’s not here. And even though Rituals isn’t the overdone, rushed product it very well could’ve been, it’s still a considerable step back, and one whose most prevalent flaws couldn’t be easier to pick up on.
It’s not the instrumentation though, surprisingly enough, as Deaf Havana have proven themselves surprisingly adept at slipping into this slicker, poppier sound. It definitely pushes right to edge of tolerability later on with tracks like Evil and Saint that are flooded with big, open synth passages that barely even touch on the melody that Deaf Havana have always picked up so well, but Rituals definitely has some solid footing in this territory overall. If anything, it’s actually surprising how far Deaf Havana take it, with the likes of Holy and Fear diving headlong into the gleaming synths and impossibly tight rhythms and grooves of The 1975, or Sinner and Heaven bringing in gospel choirs for backup and an extra layer of richness. As far as it strays from the burnished, worn-down nature of their last couple of albums (particularly All These Countless Nights), Rituals feels like the sort of simplification of a sound that benefits what Deaf Havana are aiming for altogether.
But it’s still a simplification, and if there’s going to be something that irks some more than anything else, it’ll be this, as compared to James Veck-Gilodi’s haggard confrontations with his own alcoholism that arose from his journeys around America as told on All These Countless Nights, Rituals pretty much comes plummeting down. It’s been well-documented that Veck-Gilodi came up with these song titles before writing any lyrics, and going into how flat and barebones the content feels overall, you can tell. Once again, it’s an analysis of the depression and self-deprecation that has so readily plagued the frontman, but beyond the thinly-veiled religious framing, the impact is a lot more truncated, relying on the crowd-pleasing hooks on tracks like Sinner and Holy than any of the deeper dissection that made Deaf Havana stand out so much from their peers. Sure, there are traces of that here, with Hell outlining the sleazy, moody mistreatment of someone unaware of how deeply those demons manifest themselves, and the all-too-short closer Epiphany being the dream of a normal life to get away from the plight. That’s basically it though; Rituals is disappointingly surface level, even more so considering the sort of songwriting heft that Deaf Havana achieved only eighteen months ago.
Ultimately, any real thoughts about Rituals become increasingly polarising; Deaf Havana expanding their horizons and actually succeeding with new sounds is good to see, but when that compromises the very thing that made their last few albums as excellent as they were, it’s hard to be totally onboard. At least they’ve gotten a fairly decent album out of it, and if this is the bid for wider attention that they’ve always deserved, there are worse ways to do that. At the same time though, Deaf Havana can do a lot better than this, and it would much more satisfying to see that get recognition instead of this.
For fans of: Lower Than Atlantis, The 1975, Blitz Kids
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Rituals’ by Deaf Havana is out now on SO Recordings.