For all intents and purposes, Deaf Havana shouldn’t even be here right now.
Following on from their 2018 sonic left-turn ‘RITUALS’, which saw the band embracing a more pop sound compared to previous releases, the band reached a point of complete burn-out after the album’s accompanying tours. Animosity between band members, personal difficulties, and a lack of passion for creating and performing music led to the decision to call it a day in 2020. Or at least, that was the original plan.
After COVID dashed any plans of a swansong summer, instrumentalist Matthew Veck-Gilodi found himself writing more material, and after reaching out to vocalist and brother James, ended up commencing work on what would become their latest album, even with the departures of the other long-time bandmembers, bassist Lee Wilson and drummer Tom Ogden. And thus, ‘The Present Is a Foreign Land’ was born.
An album soaked in melancholy, across the span of twelve tracks the duo explore the turbulant recent years that they have experienced, what lead the band to a breaking-point, and what the future means to them. Sonically, it picks up roughly where ‘RITUALS’ left off, but with the pop-rock and alternative-pop sensibilities sounding more accomplished and mature than previously. Certainly, it won’t be an album that will hook back in those who didn’t enjoy the band’s most recent material, but it’s a sincere and well-crafted listen that is absolutely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the lighter side of rock.
The album opens with the introductory statement of ‘Pocari Sweat’, which plays out as a tender, cinematic, pop-ish intro piece. Lyrically, contrasting the sweet and gentle instrumentals, it’s a point of utter bleakness and despair, looking back over bad decisions and regrets, with vocalist James documenting his troubles with alcohol abuse and the fractiousness the band experienced ("You can't really be homesick when your whole life's a mess/Getting sick of my drinking, well I couldn't care less"). It perfectly sets the tone for the entire album; introspective, mournful, and lost.
'19Dreams’ kicks off the album proper, and capitalises on those aforementioned feelings and themes, honing in on the overwhelming existential dread of getting older, wondering where exactly you’re heading and whether the time you have spent has been time wasted. Huge, The Killers-esque instrumentals blaze by as James Veck-Gilodi ponders "I've found grey hairs, I've changed my clothes/I've been left to wonder where did my youth go?". Following this we get ‘I Put You Through Hell’, with gritty guitars riffs and spacey synths giving away to a pop-rock rager with overwhelming, pleading desperation as James admits to his destructive flaws, and describes his wishes to overcome them, arguably pleading with himself just as much as he is anyone else.
Circling back to the break-down of Deaf Havana and the members thereof, we reach ‘Nevermind’, which serves as an exploration of the months of late 2019 and early 2020, which James describes as the ‘lowest point of [his] life to date’. Acting almost as a second title track, ‘Nevermind’ is a ballad lead by a simple acoustic guitar that opens into sprawling, sweeping strings and sparse melodic piano, feeling like the eye of the storm for the album. The vocals are the focal point of the track, powerful and tender simultaneously as James channels his emotions through soaring melodies and emotive lyricism.
‘On The Wire’ has something of an early 2010’s OneRepublic vibe; a hopeless anthem with a stadium-sized chorus of layered instruments and a perfect sing-a-long melody. Despite the once-more bleak lyricism, it feels surprisingly uplifting in contrast to the previous track. ‘Trying/Falling’ is another noteworthy moment on the album, which sees the band looking at a relationship and realising it’s not what you wanted; it’s as much a tale of Deaf Havana’s relationship as a band as it is a love song, following their brush with breaking up, and difficulties they experienced with not only one another, but the world of music around them. Gentle and understated instrumentals again place James’s gorgeous vocals at the forefront, with some of the album’s most simplistic yet relatable lyricism yet. The song explodes outwards in glorious colourful pop-rock goodness for the final chorus.
The personal highlight of this album for me, however, comes in the form of ‘Someone/Somewhere’ - pounding, lo-fi dance rhythms play along to lushous melodies coated in a layer of light vocal effects, as the band produces something that sounds wholly unique within not just their album, but their discography. James has good chemistry with featured band IDER, whose vocalist takes the reigns on the choruses, and the pair join up on a particularly wonderful bridge segment. The feeling of trying to fix someone hellbent on destruction in perfectly illustrated in emotionally potent lyricism such as "I've been crying out trying to focus on the positives in this/But then you break apart like porcelain/And I can't make you whole again." We need more depressing dancefloor anthems if this is as good as they can sound.
Unfortunately for the track ‘Help’, it has to follow that banger of a song, and feels like a little bit of a step back because of it. It’s an ode to self-isolation and letting your own misery ultimately engulf you, with decent lyricism and catchy, stadium-sized instrumentation with blaring horns and thunderous guitars, but just feels a little lesser than the other gems that this album holds. However, Deaf Havana are back in good form with title track, ‘The Present is a Foreign Land’ - an exploration of the insidious way COVID lockdowns would eat away at your mental health, being stranded in a temporal limbo in a very strange present and no future in sight. Frantic instrumentals perfectly accompany the punchy and relentless choruses, with some particularly great lyrics - ‘Wake up, you're not getting younger/What's time but pressure in a number?’. It perfectly encapsulates the themes and ideas that the band have conjured across the expanse of this album, and acts as a brilliant defining statement for the piece of work.
‘Kids’ posseses some of the album’s most uplifting and anthemic pop-rock instrumentation, which deeply contrasts with a track exploring the most painful aspects of nostalgia, feeling isolated in an ever increasingly grey world. James’s doubts about the validity of the path through life he has chosen take have been present in previous tracks, but no moreso than here, presenting himself almost as still a child, an imposter in an adult world. Any innocence is swiftly removed, however, with the following track ‘Going Clear’, which is an open and emotive exploration of substance abuse and self-destruction, realising that your behaviour is damaging but not wanting to, or perhaps not having the strength to change that. The heavy guitars and drums perfectly contrast sparse keys and somewhat choral vocals that accompany James on moments such as the chorus.
The albums wraps up with ‘Remember Me’ - a touching conclusion to the album, with Deaf Havana lamenting on who they’ve become, and what legacy they will leave behind, bringing together all of the themes and concepts of the album one final time. The simple synth lead and slower nature of the track give a wonderful spacey vibe that builds to a choral climax of simply asking ‘How will you remember me?’, concluding the album with a tentative element of hope for the future, acting as a very distant light in the tunnel for what has been a difficult couple of years for the brothers.
‘The Present Is a Foreign Land’ is far from a perfect album; at times, with those acoustics and stadium pop-rock instrumentals, it sounds dated and a little generic, a lost album from early 2010’s Imagine Dragons perhaps. But when Deaf Havana hit their stride across the album’s twelve tracks, you can’t help but appreciate that somehow, the band have made it through their own break-up, and come out with a touching, vulnerable, and at times defiant exploration of hopelessness and uncertainty. What form the band will take next, who can say. But this album shows that rock bottom can be a great foundation.
Deaf Havana’s latest album ‘The Present Is a Foreign Land’ is currently available to stream on all major platforms. Catch them on their headline tour in November 2022 at the dates below!
8 - Cardiff Tramshed
10 - Nottingham Rock City
11 - Manchester Academy
12 - London Roundhouse
14 - Glasgow SWG3
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