Darkness briefly abounded. Tears of sweat had accumulated on the brows and long haircuts of the mostly male crowd waiting for the heavy metal band from the Bay Area to arrive. In the front row, t-shirts clearly read their name: Deafheaven, in unironic and unadorned font. Their two opening acts had woven webs of similar darkness: the brittle and unintelligible punch of a Brooklyn indie band metal band called Uniform and the trippy synthe mode of the LA duo called Drab Majesty. It’s hard to read critical work on Deadheaven that does not refer to the band at the nexus of a collective consternation as to what words like “death” and “metal” are supposed to mean and exclude, so it’s interesting to think of the band as between the two extremes that their openers present, blunt punk-indebted thrash and the gothy whisper of angels. Dressed like twin ghosts of the late Andy Warhol, the theatrical flair of Drab Majesty also anticipated the tone of the evening. When George Clarke, who is Deafheaven’s swell of charisma and sweat and dresses in all black, entered the stage, lights suddenly swelled like a dramatic production had crashed into its first act.
Their first song is, in fact, long enough to be the first act of something, called “Honeycomb” and stretches over ten minutes on the studio version. This did not stop the band from servicing it as the lead single from their latest album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. The title of that is taken from a passage in the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair and Greene’s uncanny ability to express ebullient emotion inside the stodginess of middlebrow fiction is an arresting way to look at Deafheaven inside the metal scene; a world of tattoos, camped-out or real rage and cheese Metallica-solos played ad infinitum. Their records are written in this language, complete with Clarke’s incredible range as a yelling, headbashing machine, but as he performs them, the double as theatrical pieces gliding through rock’s history of riffs. And beyond the usual suspects like Mogwai, Godspeed! and the ruthlessly referenced ‘90s shoegaze band Slowdive, guitarist Kerry McCoy, whose glasses make him look something like a wonky academic of six-string studies, packs in doses of pop punk, classic rock and every bit of dust you remember hearing on the radio while Clarke rages against a lifetime on suburban grass lawns or embracing the warmth of late nights. “You Without End,” which closes the record is maybe the happiest song the band or even the genre has ever produced and it is touching to watch McCoy unable to even stomach down how happy he is to play it.
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Clarke is a performer of incredible intimacy and never leaves this character who lunges back and forth in between instrumental passages as if whipped around by his own band’s wall of roaring sound. He holds the microphone stand like a sceptre and then he moves his arms like Leonard Bernstein. He has the dexterity and feeling of a mime but is also yelling with feeling. He puts it down and instead goes moves constantly to the crowd, spending as much of the concert as is possible, even more, offering them his embrace, a corporal body that he throws into them, finally, in an encore performance of “Dream House.” These small expressions of male bonding inside the longstanding style of performed masculinity are both touching and incredibly beautiful. The jubilant bonding the theater kids have been talking about for years is happening here, amid blackened guitar licks. When the band finishes, they even show up for a final bow. The outfit and pomp of Clarke’s gestures don’t seem to belong to the aloofness of heavy metal at all, he recalls, instead, someone like Brendon Urie, who used the theatricality of 2000s emo to audition for Broadway. But Clarke doesn’t want to be anywhere else. His aim is true.