When it comes to metal bands (and bands that might not even be metal, you guys) that “fans” hate and love and love to hate, only Ghost may rank higher than San Francisco black metal alchemists Deafheaven. And just like Papa and the Ghouls, DH has been silencing critics and winning over fans in 2015 with an undeniably great new record and an unmissable US Tour, which rolled into Philly and packed Union Transfer to the rafters on Saturday night.
You know you’re in for an amazing night when the first band out is as great as Tribulation. The Swedish black n’ rollers alternated tracks between this year’s well received The Children of the Night and 2013’s The Formulas of Death, my favorite being “When the Sky is Black with Devils”. Fully black clad and corpse painted, they made no apologies for their full on satanic approach though they were the only such band on the bill, and the audience ate up every unholy minute of it, especially guitarist Jonathan Hulten, full of so much death rock swagger that his diminutive frame could barely handle it, nearly falling into the crowd and definitely falling onto his back at least once. But he never stopped playing, and that’s the important part. Respect.
Making it a full on international affair, the next band out was celebrated Japanese post-hardcore titans Envy. Though I’d heard of them plenty of times I’d never actually had the pleasure of hearing them, and that was definitely a mistake on my part. I was instantly won over by vocalist Tetsuya Fukagawa, unassuming in a cap and button up shirt but dominating on the mic with a spoken word, softly sung clean vocal or unexpectedly low, throaty growl, serving double duty as the band’s sampler and even whipping out a black Gibson SG for a solo at one point, adding an extra layer of fuzz and distortion to the band’s prog-y, alt metal jams. Also of note was guitarist Masahiro Tobita passing his guitar into the audience near the end of the set, giving a smile and thumbs up to the kid that got to noodle around with it for a minute, a respectful, friendly gesture that went over huge with the audience. Definitely a band that lives up to their decade spanning and highly influential reputation.
“Where has my passion gone?” opines Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke at the beginning of New Bermuda lead track “Brought to the Water”, which also opened the band’s set. Clarke may have lost his but the audience had surely found theirs if the slavish devotion on display for the charismatic, well-dressed frontman was any indication. The crowd ebbed and flowed along with Clarke’s stage movements as if he were conducting them like an orchestra, and they nearly trampled each other as he reached his hand out to theirs and urged them to “get close”. Clarke’s vocals sounded a bit washed out at first but when we ventured to the back of the venue to avoid the human tidal wave vying for his attention, the levels evened out beautifully and the equalization sounded just as perfect as it does on the record, his tortured growl unleashed in all its fury, but not so much as to overpower the other components of the band’s nuanced sound. The contributions of the other half of Deafheaven’s creative coin, Guitar wunderkind Kerry McCoy, can’t be discounted either, absolutely nailing the complicated speed picking gymnastics on both the loud and quiet passages of his schizophrenic sonic attack.
As highly publicized in the heavy music blogosphere, to the point of near spoilage, if such a thing as spoilers for a concert can exist, Deafheaven plays New Bermuda in its entirety, with 2014 single “From the Kettle onto the Coil” thrown in for good measure at the midpoint between “Baby Blue” and “Come Back”. It’s refreshing to see such a young band have this much confidence in their newest work, as important, relevant and vital as it is, and not just lean on their previous two records, the first of which was not represented at all in this set, and their last record, Sunbather, had its two opening tracks form the encore. Playing a record in full and (mostly) in sequence is one thing for a “legacy” act that’s been in the public eye for 10 or 20 years to pull off respectably but Deafheaven steps up to the challenge bravely and admirably, representing quite possibly my favorite record of the year in flawless form, with nary a riff, note, beat or shriek out of place, but in no way robotic or stale as to seem overly rehearsed or mechanical. If you like the record, you’ll love this performance, and I definitely walked away even more impressed with what this band has to offer and where they’ll be able to go with it in the future.
Deafheaven’s army of detractors grows daily but here’s hoping that the number of converted and convinced can grow just a bit faster. McCoy’s live chops and Clarke’s amiability and inclusionary treatment of his fans make this a hard band for newcomers not to like, and for the initiated not to like even more. Clarke’s skill as a lyricist and vocalist and McCoy’s guitar virtuosity were never in question, but on this tour, we witness the ascension of metal gods.
Photos by Megan Hawkey
Words by Kevin Hawkey