November 13, 2015
Deafheaven is a band that catches you off guard the first time you hear them. The greater body of their music is chilling black metal performed with all the frosty, mechanized intensity that such an extreme style demands. But beating inside all that gnarled, necrotic tissue is a warm and tender heart, expressed through inspired post-punk and shoegaze guitar passages that have been known to get grown men hugging in the mosh pit.
As pretty much the only American band out there crazy enough to fuse black metal with emo (fuck it, we're calling it black-mo), Deafheaven has achieved no small share of notoriety in the heavy-music underground since their big breakthrough in 2013. It certainly helps that they’re good at it: New album New Bermuda has received the same critical raves as Sunbather, their last. The band aren’t exactly superstars yet, settling for Warehouse Live’s studio room on Friday rather than the larger ballroom. And their heretical crossover style remains controversial among true black-metal nerds. For Deafheaven’s fans, though, there is no controversy. They showed up ready to rock hard, without any regard for the haters.
The strange Swedes Tribulation warmed up the crowd, and frankly, it didn’t take much. Performing long, wailing tunes like “The Motherhood of God” from their latest record, the group cut a pose onstage that reminded me a bit of a pissed-off and evil Cure. Blame the makeup, I guess. There were baroque guitar harmonies in abundance, and a tasty solo or two thrown in, as well, helping to wed a nice pop sensibility to the crushing black metal onslaught.
The crowd was appreciative, clapping with enthusiasm. But thoughts of the headliner were clearly dancing in their heads. Excited cheers went up as soon as Deafheaven appeared in the darkness. Singer George Clarke, he of the sharp haircut and shrieking vocals, lustily high-fived every fan in the front row he could get to as haunting, ambient sounds played over the PA. And then, drums.
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The blast-beating on set-opener “Brought to the Water,” the first track on the band’s new album, was brutally syncopated, lifting the audience a centimeter or so off the floor for a moment. Eyes closed, teeth ground and fists pumped everywhere. The sound ricocheted off the venue’s bare, concrete walls, tripling the sheer size of Deafheaven’s riffs.
As Clarke screamed his guts outs, the band transitioned into a passage that reminded me of the melodic hardcore of Grade. It sounded so hopeful and pleasant, particularly in contrast with the harsh metallic scraping that preceded it. It was our first taste of Deafheaven’s signature swirl on the evening, and it sounded awfully fresh.
Going from hard to soft and back again is kind of Deafheaven’s only trick, but they’re very good at it. They tore through most of New Bermuda on Friday, screaming from the rawest, ugliest side of life. But they’d always offer a salve for our wounds, too. No matter how brutal things got, we were never more than a couple of minutes away from another huge guitar hook or a high-five from Clarke.
All night, the singer couldn’t help but become the focus of Deafheaven’s performance. His tortured shriek sounded perfect during the band’s most harrowing bits, and when they slowed things down, he daintily conducted the crowd in singing along as huge clouds of vapor blew into the rafters. Sometimes, he’d forgo the mike entirely and simply yell directly into the mosh pit.
The group ended their set with an encore of two songs from their best-loved album so far, Sunbather. Ecstatic fans moshed, hugged and banged from the waist for the record’s epic title track and reveled in the Explosions in the Sky-style rave-up of “Dream House.” When they were done, the crowd buzzed about a bit, feeling upbeat. Deafheaven had exorcised a few of our nastier feelings and injected some hope into the cavity left behind. And if that’s not good enough for true black metal, well, then I don’t wanna shred.
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Personal Bias: No earplugs for me, thanks.
The Crowd: Sensitive headbangers and lady stage-divers.
Overheard In the Crowd: “Here comes that solo I was telling you about!”
Random Notebook Dump: It was hard to attend a rock concert on Friday and not think about the people at the Bataclan in Paris. Our thoughts are still with you.