It is a rare occasion that a metal album creates as much buzz as Sunbather, the most recent release from the San Francisco based group Deafheaven. In fact, Sunbather may be the most hyped black metal album of all time, largely because Deafheaven’s aesthetic draws as much influence from Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky as it does from Emperor and Darkthrone. Their unique blend of shoegaze and black metal has crossover appeal that many “pure” black metal bands wouldn’t dream of having. Deafheaven, however, don’t seem concerned with their black metal status − you won’t find any corpse paint or studded black leather on these guys − but vocalist George Clarke’s shrill death-cries and drummer Daniel Tracy’s punishing blast beats are as brutal as any Scandinavian act.
Riding this unprecedented wave of critical acclaim, Deafheaven made their way to Birmingham’s DIY venue The Forge last Thursday night. This was my first visit to The Forge, a fitting atmosphere for what transpired. The Forge is largely open space, yet there is a certain warmth provided by the couches and bookshelf located in the forefront of the venue. The air-conditioning was either very poor or nonexistent, but, like any good metal fan, I was already anticipating being very wet by the end of the night. The bill included local acts Holiness Church of the Valley and Capsized, as well as Los Angeles-based three-piece Marriages, who are accompanying Deafheaven on a leg of their North American tour. Marriages featured slugging bass and drums coupled with sensual vocals and spacey, droning guitar work from front woman Emma Rundle. Sadly, I was punished for being late to the party and did not hear more than one song.
After 30 minutes of anxiously listening to Purity Ring’s new album play over the sound system, Deafheaven took the stage to about 50 people. They launched directly into “Dream House,” the opening track off Sunbather, and I found myself immediately enthralled by George Clarke’s stage presence. Dawning black gloves and a black shirt shirt buttoned all the way to the collar, George Clarke performed like some sort of black metal cleric prosthelytizing to an unsuspecting mass. Clarke loomed over the first row of onlookers, his microphone raised sternly, making direct eye contact with audience members − including myself − for what felt like ages, as if to try and exorcize pain and anguish from audience members. When Clarke wasn’t wailing into ones soul, he stood with his head raised, eyes closed, piously waiting to take the pulpit again as the music plunged forward.
Clarke was the focal point of the evening, but the rest of the band performed their parts solidly. Guitarist Kerry McCoy was the silent director of the show, coordinating changes with drummer Daniel Tracy and the others, occasionally taking the spotlight with his on-point melodic guitar lines. Tracy demonstrated admirable dexterity on the drums, switching seamlessly from blast beats and thunderous double bass to sensitive post-rock grooves. There was one minor hiccup early in the set when guitarist Shiv Mehra broke a string that caused some delay after “Dream House,” but the mood was maintained by a sample of the instrumental track “Irresistible.” Clarke later apologized for the technical difficulties and thanked the crowd for coming out, the only time he broke his vigilant persona during the roughly hour-long set.
Deafheaven’s impact is just as forceful live as their impressive studio effort, perhaps even more so. Clarke is far more prominent in the live sound, not only because of his showmanship, but also his vocals are mixed much louder than they are on Sunbather. For those who have not acquired a taste for the full-blown black metal screech, this may be a turn off. But overall, Clarke riveting visual display and McCoy’s shrill, yet elegant compositions make Deafheaven’s live performance rise above many of their more ham-fisted metal peers. I would recommend that any fan of modern rock music give Sunbather a spin, even if they typically shy away from heavier fair. It might just surprise you.