2/23/14 – Royale

Although Deafheaven was not the headliner at the Royale on Sunday (that honor went to prog metal band Between the Buried and Me), the palpable excitement before they took the stage and the roar when they finally appeared indicated that many in the audience were there specifically to see them.

Deafheaven burst onto the music world’s radar with last year’s Sunbather, a genre-bending piece of work with black metal influences and a pink album cover. The big blogs loved it, the indie kids warmed to it, and Deafheaven found themselves one of the first bands of their genre to receive serious praise outside of the metal circle. Metalheads are notoriously protective of their genre, and Sunbather’s melodicism and non-ominous lyrics have caused many a metal purist to turn up his nose. But that was not the case at the Royale that night: Leading up to the show, there was excited chatter in the black T-shirted crowd about melding genres. (“A Day to Remember did it with hardcore and pop-punk, remember?”) Standing shoulder to shoulder in the sold-out venue, it wasn’t hard to think that perhaps it’s time for the metal microgenres to break out of their conservative shells and embrace a wider listening base.

As Deafheaven eased into “Dream House,” the first track off of Sunbather, the crowd went into a predictable frenzy, a mosh pit bloomed in the center of the floor, and head-banging broke out in rhythm with Daniel Tracy’s drum blasts. But from the get-go there was more to Deafheaven’s musical presence than the average screaming vocals and guitar combo. Screamer-vocalist George Clarke has a theatricality that evokes Freddie Mercury as much as any metal idol you could name. Tall and upright, with his blonde hair slicked back, he bathed in the music, sometimes lifting his head toward the ceiling into an almost Christlike pose, other times staring down the audience and beckoning them to join him in the exaltation. It’s a routine that would have been absolutely laughable paired with any other kind of music. But set against Deafheaven’s low melodic roar, Clarke’s intense body language created an immersive experience that was neither overly grating nor obviously contrived.

As Clarke strutted and thrashed, his high-pitched screams rose above the mix: “Hindered by sober restlessness / Submitting to the amber crutch / The theme in my aching prose.” Never before have metal fans moshed so enthusiastically to such ponderously poetic lyrics. Deafheaven has been described as “happy black metal,” and while “happy” may not be a likely descriptor for casual observers, Clarke’s screams seemed more ecstatic than angry, neither ominous nor confrontational. Of course, unless you knew the lyrics ahead of time or were following along on your phone, there was almost no way to discern individual words.

Five minutes through “Dream House,” the vocals ended, the heavy guitar haze cleared, and lead axeman Kerry McCoy introduced a gentle Explosions in the Sky-style guitar line. The moment played out as beautifully live as on the record, much to the crowd’s appreciation — there were roars and cheers that would sound laughably out of place at any other black metal concert.

Then the rest of the band came pouring back in and Clarke started the four-minute outro by screaming, “I’m dying!” The crowd had been waiting for this moment of sweet catharsis, and screamed along with him, feeding off of each other’s energy: “ I’m dying!” “Is it blissful?” “It’s like a dream.” “I want to dream.”

This formula of crushing noise, intermingled with slowly meandering guitar lines, characterized the whole of Deafheaven’s set. The band’s style, like that of many artists who rely on atmosphere and dynamics, is not rewarding to listeners who want clear-cut songs and structure: It could all have been one long song, with several quiet interludes. Clarke’s energy never flagged; if anything, it heightened throughout the night, building on the fans’ enthusiasm. By the end, he was surfing on top of the adoring crowd and screaming his lines skyward. When he finally broke character to announce the final number and thank the audience, it was disarming to hear him speak like a normal human being.

If much of the buzz around defining Deafheaven’s sound is indicative of just how petty and worthy of parody many genre definitions have become (“They’re black metal and post-rock blended with shoegaze, but not black metal and NOT death metal…”), then their live show is a refreshing example of a band that can deliver a spirited performance and forge a new sound that at this point is still all their own.

The New Metal: Deafheaven
Pros
  • Vocalist George Clarke's enrapturing stage presence added an extra dimension to Deafheaven's heavy style
  • The instrumentation was well mixed and retained some of the subtleties of the record
  • Clarke and the audience consistently played off one another's enthusiasm
Cons
  • Long and similar-sounding songs meant that the set blended together into one long opus
8Overall Score

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