The controversy surrounding Deafheaven‘s ascent as standard bearers and critical darlings of extreme music has always seemed deeply misplaced to me. Their haircuts too trendy, their clothing too tight, their genre-bending too omnivorous for approval by black metal’s gatekeepers. These concerns, despite primarily being superficial bullshit, largely ignore the primary appeal of Deafheaven: their music is utterly unconcerned with fashion, occasionally embarrassingly vulnerable, and always emotionally resonant. A violent churn of smeared pastel-hued texture and crystalline melodic precision. Theirs is the sound of big gestures and bigger moods, aimed squarely at anyone who’s ever found salvation through electric guitars and distortion pedals. I am absolutely one of those people.
Touring behind their just-released Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven played to a solid crowd at Theatre Fairmount last Thursday. New York City industrial hardcore wrecking crew Uniform opened the evening. Eschewing the sampled and triggered percussion of their recorded output, the band performed as a three-piece with live drums to thunderous effect. Ben Greenberg, the band’s multi-instrumentalist, deployed a veritable carpet bombing of noise, with guitar figures stretching and protracting into shambling bass tones through EQ and multi-amp trickery. Piercing the din of sludgy floor-punching riffs, Michael Berdan’s wails toed the line between urgency and despair. It was a great, high energy set that managed to get the crowd appropriately warmed up for the headliner.
As Deafheaven took the stage, however, it became obvious that something was quite literally amiss. Kerry McCoy, one of the band’s guitarists and primary songwriters was absent, having been unable to cross the Canadian border earlier that day. This was a worrying turn: so much of what drives Deafheaven’s sublime melodicism is rooted in that twin guitar meshwork. To strip half of it away would be a huge blow to the band’s sound. And in truth, it was.
This would have crippled a lesser band. Deafheaven however, is a great band, and so they found a way to rise above. They played an adapted set, focusing on songs that were less reliant on guitar interplay, more immediate in their foregrounding of metal dynamics. This meant avoiding most of the songs from their new album, however, which was a bit of a letdown for fans hoping to hear the new compositions live.
Remaining guitarist Shiv Mehra was the absolute MVP of the evening, having learned many of McCoy’s guitar parts in the two hours that preceded the show. He ably switched between his and his bandmate’s parts when needed, deploying lead lines and rhythm work when appropriate. A chorus of fans in the audience also pulled their weight, loudly singing McCoy’s absent slide-guitar melody from the ending of “Come Back” from 2015’s New Bermuda, as well as the titanic, gliding refrain that closes out the absolute classic “Dream House” from 2013’s Sunbather. In those moments, vocalist George Clarke beamed, dramatically waving his arms around like the conductor to a particularly sweaty choir. However, the performance wasn’t without its shortcomings. Certain segments of songs were nearly unrecognizable without McCoy’s lead guitar. Reduced to nothing but blast beats and rolling chords, some songs were drained of their transcendent grace, and only occasionally gained something from the immediacy of the diminished line-up. And while Clarke was in fine form throughout the evening, stalking the stage, pointing commandingly at unseen demons with his gloved hands, tilting his head at unnatural angles while belting his shrieks; his percussive vocal style did little to fill in the void left by McCoy’s absence. But on songs like “Brought to the Water,” “Sunbather” and new song “Honeycomb,” Deafheaven nearly made me forget about their thinned-out ranks.
The band played with pummelling fury and all of their usual heart, just shy of the euphoric crests they’ve repeatedly proven themselves capable of. And that is no small feat.
Review – Jean-Michel Lacombe
Photos – Steve Gerrard