July 15, 2013
Bottom of the Hill
Better than: What most of your friends were doing on the grayest, coolest Monday night of the summer so far.
It's only fitting that we should find San Francisco return to its frigid summer form to welcome back its native sons Deafheaven, fresh from a month-long tour across the scorching climes of the rest of the United States. In supporting its latest new album, Sunbather, the band had its work cut out for it. Too abrasive for the post rock crowd but too limp-wristed for the black metal crowd, Deafheaven defiantly pillaged from both genres and was met with a string of sold-out shows and general acclaim, a handful of Internet trolls notwithstanding.
All of which makes this hometown show seem likely to play out as a victory lap. The band's almost obnoxiously diverse approach is well-suited for the young, omnivorous scene that birthed it. What's more, the band members are avowed partiers, openly sharing their love for every indulgence from cough syrup to strip club buffets through social media. Cagey they are not, but at the same time they've been open about their appreciation for a short-attention span youth culture embracing a band that traffics in 10-plus-minute heavy metal epics with no repeating parts. They've also expressed sincere optimism that the band's current lineup spells the end of its revolving door, meaning that vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy may no longer have ringers, but a full-fledged band.
Opener Monuments Collapse expresses the diverse musical intentions of the evening with a clarity that is surprisingly convincing. Its mix of blackened doom textures with the obligatory delay-soaked post-rock melancholy is more than decent, if not sufficiently compelling to warrant further investigation.
Marriages were another story. Whereas their parent band Red Sparowes suffered from a kind of homogeneity that never sacrificed sprawl for assertiveness, Marriages seem dedicated to the thesis of the power trio. A pounding rhythm section builds on simple angular guitar figures, creating a dense nest for Emma Ruth Rundle's PJ Harvey-esque vocal swagger (which we could've used a bit more of in the mix). This kind of cathartic modern rock was apparently only a point of departure, as Rundle and bassist Greg Burns stomped on their myriad pedals and went positively sci-fi atop Chris Common's propulsive drums. Good stuff.
The members Deafheaven set up their gear and leave the stage abruptly, though McCoy leaves his guitar looping a hypnotic, organ-like minor chord. Clarke, dressed like a black-gloved assassin, hits the stage with the rest of the band, hamming it up, gesturing for the crowd to come hither, and striking comically sexual poses reminiscent of your drunk friend pretending to be Robert Plant in the '70s.
Then something weird happens: the music starts and Clarke's pose stops being funny; it ends up becoming one of the most weirdly compelling cases for the notion of the "frontperson" in recent memory. As if transfigured by the sweeping sonic landscapes conjured by his bandmates, Clarke puts on an utterly unselfconscious piece of performance art, channeling the transformative power of Deafheaven's music through physicality as clearly as his screams, if not more so.
The band members are tighter than a rusted lug nut. God help these guys, but as they charge through a suite of their most recent material into an utterly rousing chunk of their debut, Roads to Judah, one can only hope this lineup sticks. They punish and caress effortlessly, though clearly none are virtuosos. Indeed, there's something terribly punk about this band, in that the members' ambition and ability to execute are often evenly matched. The music itself seems to actually make them grow. Crescendo after crescendo, it's clear that Deafheaven's only commitment is to ensuring that its tension explodes as often as possible. Tonight, it was further evident that, for all the care this band so evidently exhibits in the studio, its power is most thrilling live.