Deafheaven / Taft Theatre Ballroom / Cincinnati, Ohio / February 19, 2014
By Zack Baker, Editorial Director
If there's one thing Deafheavenhas certainly managed to live up to in the wake of the massive hype-train following it's sophomore album, it's the band's name.
Sitting here a full 24 hours after the show, my ears are still ringing. But it's a beautiful ring. I went into the show hopeful that the band would be able to capture even half of the emotion or energy found on Sunbather, and I was not disappointed. After a full hour of the band's crushingly intense set and every single song from the sophomore album as well as a callback from their debut, Roads To Judah, I left the venue sweaty, nearly deaf and in musical heaven.
After a series of travel-related headaches, I pulled up to the venue's parking lot 5 minutes before the show was set to begin. Walking in to the blaring riffs of the opening act, Mala In Se (legalese for morally despicable action), I was happy to see the venue was easy to navigate and quickly took a spot within a few feet of the stage and settled in to have my mind (and eardrums) blown.
Mala In Se had an incredibly tight live show, featuring dual projectors displaying some of the most gruesome imagery you can find in stock footage libraries. Animals decomposing, war footage and insect violence were all on the docket, and provided a fitting background for the band's ferociously technical take on metal. The band frequently switched up instrumental and vocal responsibilites, including the lead vocalist beating on a floor tom and propane tank to match the drummer's thudding beats and snare claps.
The band was impressively in-sync with the background videos, diving into breakdowns and solos perfectly in time with the strobe effects added into the videos. If Mala In Se had one weak point, it would be the lead vocalist's sometimes faltered delivery. Too often the singer sounded as though he was choking the shouts out rather than really reaching an appropriate scream. Other than that small touch, the band did a fantastic job and got me in the right head space for Deafheaven's frequently instrumental, always scathing blend of black metal and shoegaze.
I had a few reservations about seeing Deafheaven live, mostly terrified that the band wouldn't be able to match the emotion and energy present on the albums in a live setting. They blew my expectations out of the water, sprawling the already daunting songs into real masterpieces. For reference, the band could barely cram five songs into an hour. And that's including the encore.
The band took the stage and launched directly into "Dream House,"Sunbather's mood-setting opening track. Frontman George Clarke sauntered on stage a few minutes after the rest of the band had already started playing the flowing, delicate--and it feels very weird to call a metal song delicate--track. His vocals were the piece of the puzzle I was most apprehensive about, and from the second he touched the mic I realized how stupid I was to worry. His howls sounded like they could have been ripped straight off of the album masters. And, somehow, he held that shriek up for the entire set.Clarke and lead guitarist Kerry McCoy are the public-facing personalities of the band, and that personality transfers to the stage. Okay, so the intensity and aggression on the stage isn't exactly what you'd expect after spending a few minutes with their Twitter accounts, but they dominate the stage.
Clarke's eyes transfer insanity to any unsuspecting audience member who happens to catch his gaze, and his psychotic orchestrator routine comes off as diabolical rather than cheesy. McCoy's presence is less overbearing, but watching him for a few minutes makes it clear that he's the heart of the band, frequently communicating with the other members with little more than a look.
The band built in breaks between each marathon-length track by playing the interludes from Sunbather while grabbing a quick drink or checking tuning, and proceeded to rip its way through "Sunbather," "The Pecan Tree" and Roads To Judah's "Unrequited" without more than a sentence uttered between each. Every tiny hit or detail on the record was perfectly replicated on stage, such as the minuscule chord changes in "Sunbather" that form a melody of their own or the clanging ride cymbal cracks on "Vertigo." Nothing ever felt drowned-out, a miracle of audio engineering for a band like this.
Following "The Pecan Tree" the band built up a heavy feedback loop and dropped their instruments and walked off-stage. McCoy even doubled back to seemingly kill the power to his amp. The act fooled the venue's engineers: they brought up the house lights and the crowd began to funnel out. My friends and I walked up to the stage in hopes of stealing a setlist, and Clarke awkwardly walked back on stage. Confused, he asked the engineers if they could play an encore, and they thankfully obliged.
The band's sprawling, dizzying rendition of "Vertigo" dragged out beyond the 15 minute mark. From my position up against the stage, I ended up caught in the microphone cable after Clarke jumped down into the crowd and wrapped me up upon his return to the stage. After a quick apology, he proceeded to drop the mic down to his hip and scream an entire verse directly to me. My friend ended up with some drool on his hand (not sure whether that's as awesome as he said) and I got a personal...serenade? from Clarke himself. I was terrified, but it was the most intense and personal experience I had ever had at a show this size.
The band built another feedback loop up, and finally crept away for good. After a quick, fruitless search for merch, I walked back out into the cold and started the long drive back to Athens. I couldn't hear the conversation in the car, but I didn't care. I was on cloud nine.