Axel Koch gives his take on Deafheaven’s latest Glasgow appearance
On stage, George Clarke lets his hair down. The frontman of American blackgaze outfit, Deafheaven, sports a well groomed son-in-law look in promotional photos that is completely shed in favour of loosening his shoulder-length mane for full headbanging potential. This change in style is matched by the rest of the band, each doing their damnedest to lose the prefix from the “hipster metal” title they have earned from detractors with a brutal live performance at Glasgow’s Classic Grand last Tuesday (October 2).
That means no room for dream pop ballads à la Near, instrumental piano interludes like Irresistible, or spoken word pieces about a depressed stoner finding transcendent meaning in the appearance of a flock of geese – an extract from a short story by Tom McElravey that opened their most recent studio album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. It’s an understandable choice, but Deafheaven’s appeal on record lies in their blend of the heavy and the soft, of bone-crunching solos and shoegaze atmospherics, of black metal blast beats and post-rock ambience, of infernal growls and melodic clean vocals; with their live performances almost exclusively sticking to the former attributes. Symptomatically, the “On and on and on we choke on” chant at the end of their latest single Canary Yellow is relegated to maybe thirty seconds of muted backing vocals, robbing the track of the element that lifts it to such cathartic heights.
Yet even with that somewhat one-note live presence, what Deafheaven never lose is their masterful blend of rage and rapture. After an engine-revving set by the Virginia-based sludge metal group Inter Arma, Clarke and company take the stage with Honeycomb, assaulting the crowd with an eardrum-shredding fury before guitarist Kerry McCoy lays down a clean riff of such triumphant beauty that you could almost see it forming the backbone of a soaring Bruce Springsteen anthem. The 11-minute epic then slows down to a heavenly dream pop finish – and I swear I wouldn’t stoop to that level of punnery if it weren’t fully deserved.
They mostly stick to songs from the brilliant OCHL, leaving space for a wild performance of Sunbather, the title track of their breakthrough sophomore release and only playing one cut, Brought to the Water, off their third album New Bermuda, which celebrates its three-year anniversary on the night of the gig. During the many instrumental stretches, Clarke uses his left hand either to conduct his bandmates or to vigorously brandish his mic stand like a pole weapon, representative of the central dichotomy inherent to Deafheaven: a band that can provoke the headbanging of a Slayer concert and the swaying of a Slowdive gig within the very same song. Mostly they settle for the former though, and that’s fine – the band’s energy and fervour makes for one of the most thrilling metal gigs I’ve ever been to.
When that riff hits seven minutes into their magnum opus Dream House – that riff, the one that practically lifts you above all earthly troubles with its sheer transportive force – Deafheaven reach their ferocious apex. It’s the only logical way for them to end their set and it’s so fucking good that, honestly, wishing for “slow tunes” feels tantamount to asking for Creep at a Radiohead show. So I’ll just quit my bitching.