Sometimes you see and hear a band play live and it makes you wish you'd saved up all those superlatives you've been throwing around over the years, just for that night. Last night I saw Deafheaven at the Corner Hotel in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Richmond. No hang on, I didn't “see” them- I was part of the experience, the story, the wonder that is Deafheaven live. More on that soon.
This is Deafheaven's first time to Australia and for the Melbourne show were supported by a couple of local black/sludge metal outfits. Thrall were up first and played a couple of tracks off each of their last two albums. Opening with 'Vermin to the earth' the four-piece set up a wall of guitar and bass punctuated with stops and the occasional tumbling riff before Tom Void demonstrated his low and mid-range hardcore vocals. Next was the title track of the new record, 'Aokigahara Jukai' as the band continued their bleak outlook of the world with walls of sound dropping to staggering and destructive plodding. Two more songs later they were into their last for the night – 'Vita Vacuus Voluntas'. I spoke to Tom and guitarist Ramez Bathish after their set and was impressed with their attitude toward their music.
Whitehorse has lived for ten years with various personnel and describe themselves as a 'A great unholy beast' and their genre as 'Heaviness', both of which are surprisingly accurate for metal band PR. The sound was much harder edged than Thrall – there are some pretty beefy lads in this outfit – and they took the chance to play some old stuff ('Everything Ablaze'), some brand new stuff ('16'), 'External Oblivion' from their split with Negative Standards, and both songs from their “Document” 12”. The basslines were deep and set up the heratbeats while the rest of the rhythm section kept the beast powering forward while the sludgy riffs flowed overhead with passages of deep, growling vocals cutting through the mass of noise. The creatures tentacles wrapped themselves around the bandroom, sliding into every corner on their slow and deliberate path to Armageddon.
Time between sets passed quickly with so many familiar faces in the crowd, and in no time the laptop was cranked up to generate some noise in preparation for the black metal band with the pink record. The band launched into the Sunbather album start to finish without introduction or pause between tracks, save for a pause after 'Vertigo' effectively making one epic song followed by a shorter epic song.
Gone or simply played loud were some of the quieter passages and the samples, without losing the critical dynamics. Their drummer, Dan Tracy, is just phenomenal as he switches from hardcore to that progressive feel and back, and guitars and bass provided an avalanche of intense noise while still picking out the important melodies and arpeggios. Now I mean no disrespect to the other four guys on stage, who translated the instrumental side of things to a sustained explosion of intense, loud and layered metal or rock or whatever the beast is. But from the moment Clarke entered the stage, leant over the moat into the front rows, and glared into our eyes with a clear but unspoken command to pay attention to him and him alone, I did what I was fucking told.
Dressed in black buttoned shirt, black jeans and black leather gloves, short black hair parted and stuck to his scalp, Clarke isn't a big man. Until he gets on stage and his presence fills your field of vision. Throughout the performance of the album he swung between crisp, clean mechanical movements and loose, free snaking like a strand of kelp on the ocean bed. As the opening refrains began he stared from the shadows directly into the eyes of the faces only a foot away from his, not exactly scowling, angry but an anger shared, not directed at the crowd. He moved to one side and did the same, then the other, then returned to the centre in preparation for unleashing the screams. Each movement was smooth and deliberate and punctuated by stillness, as if an actor in a Fritz Lang silent movie, forming a bond of utter singularity with and devotion from a crowd of strangers. And he hadn't even opened his mouth.
Now I'm far too old to be in a mosh pit but I just had to experience what a friend in Scotland, Phil, had told me not to miss at this gig, so I braved front centre for a couple of minutes and it was the place to be. The pack was ready to sign up for anything their new leader demanded as he ranged from screaming at them, reaching in and making contact, or standing upright making exaggerated, clinical movements with his arms, hands and fingers as he conducted the crowd like we were an orchestra. As I bailed to the safer fourth row and to one side I had a better overall view, yet still I barely glanced at Kerry McKoy on guitar where normally that's what I would have been transfixed on. Then Clarke stared straight into the crowd where I was now standing and I actually felt a terrible pang of guilt, as if he knew I had left the pit and was letting me know of his displeasure.
This intensity continued for around 45 minutes until Sunbather had almost ended and Clarke spoke to the crowd for the first time, but was an inferior form of communication and it was straight back to the music. The remaining songs were still powerful and still great metal, but they also had the wonderful effect of being a nice long epilogue to the opening tracks. I confess I did lose track and thought the album had finished but this was my mind playing tricks. In some way I felt released from the grip of the main performance and took the time to walk around the room a bit to experience the show from different points. Making my way to one end of the moat I got a great view of the continuing bond between Clarke and the pit, but I no longer felt guilty and enjoyed the experience from outside now rather than within.
As the end of the night approached Clarke jumped down to floor level and then climbed onto the fence, his followers' hands reaching up stroking and grabbing at his legs and torso. Then all too soon it was over.
Deafheaven live is without a shred of doubt one of the finest musical experiences I've ever had. This wasn't just some of the best music in existence, being played with exceptional skill. This was an emotional experience of monumental proportions - the presence of a stadium in a room of around 800 punters. It was a good night to be alive.