It’s with a heavy heart that Deaf Havana continue to be undervalued, to where they continuously end up perched on the knife-edge when it comes to progressing or even just existing for how little appreciation they get. Maybe it’s the retrospective disinterest in 2010s Britrock in which they carved their biggest foothold, but they’ve also proved time and time again since that they’re more creatively rich than that scene would allow. On top of that, James Veck-Gilodi is an unequivocally gifted songwriter when it comes to mining tangible emotional depth, and it’s frankly astounding how much that does for their output. All These Countless Nights, for a fairly straightforward rock album, has aged phenomenally well for it, and despite the poppier, produced Rituals not clicking to the same extent immediately, it’s perhaps stood the test of time even better. And yet, despite all of that, every subsequent album from Dead Havana seems to come with its own uphill battle to withstand. Kudos for perseverance, sure, but it’s also unfair that this is the mould they appear to be stuck in perpetually, especially when thinning down even further to just a core duo for this album will likely see them get written off once again.
It’s the same cycle that only gets more disheartening to revisit, because The Present Is A Foreign land is, once again, a great album, though unlikely to receive the acclaim it deserves or move Deaf Havana further than incrementally. That’s a sentiment that the band feel all too aware of in how they thread it through the album’s text; once again, the themes of Veck-Gilodi’s depression are explored, steeped in alcohol and substance abuse, but there’s the similar twinge of stasis in life that sends him spiralling down further. Where a song like The Past Six Years framed a similar thing in the context of Veck-Gilodi’s peers’ and friends’ bands passing his own by, The Present Is A Foreign Land is more bleak and broad, where 19 Dreams and On The Wire address the real balancing act of chasing dreams and forging one’s own path, and the jaws of failure that always seem to wait in the wings. There’s honest pain in Veck-Gilodi’s own experiences in how he’ll relay these emotions and how much of a toll they’ll take on him. Pocari Sweat opens the album with him standing on a bridge in Singapore and contemplating jumping, before rounding off with a statement as simple yet devastating as “Good God, this is as low as it gets”. Meanwhile, there’s the codependency on a loved one who’s no longer there on Nevermind and Trying / Falling, and the resignation to an addiction that’s keeping him occupied on Going Clear. The bleakness and unflinching honestly that keeps Deaf Havana substantially apart from their contemporaries is once again here in spades, and even when the broader strokes have been utilised there’s so much weight to how it’s written, and how much vulnerability comes out in Veck-Gilodi’s voice.
It’s where Deaf Havana always shine most of all, and they do so in a way that doesn’t neglect their big alt-rock leanings, rather tempering them in a way that makes sense for any given context. This time, they lean more on the folk-rollicks that defined Old Souls, topped with a few layers of pop gloss present on Rituals. Crucially, it’s never too much though, more often than not the occasional synth shine for grandeur or melancholy. That said, Someone / Somewhere has a pounding, four-on-the-floor beat that might seem counterintuitive to a more pensive track like this, but the build that comes from it is undeniable, and how Veck-Gilodi and guest star IDER’s voices build and rise with it is just a stellar bit of music dynamism. It’s a better auxiliary measure than the horns on Help which fight for air in the mix, though that’s a very rare occasion of Deaf Havana’s production choices stumbling when they’ve so often got fantastic tightness and precision. Nevermind might be the best example of that in how the strings flutter into the negative space with so much poise and fitness, though for crowd-pleasing gusto, the swells of choral backing vocals on On The Wire and Remember Me are the killer app to bring back. If Rituals could be a bit lopsided in how it presented its ideas from outside the alt-rock norm, The Present Is A Foreign Land is the much-needed snap back into focus, especially when next to nothing has been taken from its tunefulness. 19 Dreams and the title track hold firm as galloping festival anthems; Pocari Sweat and Nevermind come from Happiness’ well of solemn, searingly potent torch songs; and everything in between represents the ever-morphing shades of Deaf Havana’s repertoire, carried out with grace and determination.
If you really want to nitpick, maybe the highs aren’t quite as high as what Deaf Havana have produced in the past, but that’s by such a negligible margin that it’s hardly worth stressing over when this is still great. As if on cue, Deaf Havana once again prove themselves to be so much more than a band limited by what they came from; as ever, they’re honest and real without dulling its impact, gifted by excellent writing and a creative vision that actually sticks the landing. Maybe more than all of that though, The Present Is A Foreign Land hits in a place that feels earned, something that’s true of all Deaf Havana albums, but the catharsis never gets less righteous and gripping to experience. For as much as we—or indeed, anyone—can implore that Deaf Havana are given a chance to become the gigantic British rock institution they’ve had the power to be for over a decade now, the music ultimately speaks for itself, and in this case, it’s speaking as loud as always.
For fans of: Twin Atlantic, The Gaslight Anthem, We Are The Ocean
‘The Present Is A Foreign Land’ by Deaf Havana is released on 15th July on SO Recordings.
Words by Luke Nuttall