Deafheaven at Empire: California metal band finds the sweet spot in a bitter genre


San Fransisco-based metal outfit Deafheaven performs at Empire. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Feel-good music can still be furious stuff. California metal band Deafheaven proved it at Empire in Springfield on Thursday night.

The quintet was touring behind last year’s “Sunbather,” a critically adored album that’s doubled as a baptism for anyone ignorant to the demarcation lines that slice up heavy metal’s highly balkanized subgenres. Unlike so many black metal bands, Deafheaven makes rich, melodic and ultimately evangelical music that acknowledges the latent pleasure in extreme aggression. Instead of burrowing, it bursts.

Sonically, frontman George Clarke spends most of “Sunbather” roaring in the back seat, but onstage at Empire, he was the ringleader, channeling all of his band’s fantastic turbulence into a monotone screech that resembled a circular saw chewing through pavement. Sparks everywhere.

The guy was a sight, too. He parted his hair like a fascist boy scout, but quickly mussed it into a lump of soggy shredded wheat. He also donned black leather S&M gloves and flapped his hands through the air as if vogueing, directing traffic, practicing tai chi or conducting the NSO.

His bandmates — guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Stephen Clark and drummer Daniel Tracy — refrained from pinballing around the stage, funneling their physical resources into songs that required shredding at great speeds for 10 minutes at a time.

Set-opener “Dream House” was the most impressive marathon-sprint in the bunch, a tune that gnashed, then tumbled, then spiked, then slackened, then pummeled and finally wrapped itself in a bow with a guitar riff that chimed like U2. (Deafheaven’s cheeriest cheerleaders like to compare the band’s twinklier guitar riffs to Johnny Marr’s, but it’s really the Edge we’re hearing.)

And for a band so fluent in ear-bruising thrills, there were too many shhh!-guitar-only interludes. Those moments felt lumpy and sentimental, like a pantomime of Explosions in the Sky, the instrumental rock troupe that soundtracked TV football drama “Friday Night Lights.” (Maybe Deafheaven’s sound is what Crucifictorious was going for all along?)

Another beef: It all could have been louder, especially Tracy’s blast-beat drumming, which too often got lost in the melodic barrage.

So instead of zoning out to the physicality of the band’s sound, the audience sparked a physical exchange with itself. Bodies pushed and pulled. Fists were thrown to the ceiling. Crowd-surfers were hoisted upward, as if propelled by impossible gusts of wind.

Clarke presided over the scrum as high priest, reaching out and locking hands with fans in a ritual that was something between a high five and a laying on of hands. When his flock finally yanked him into the crowd and surfed him overhead, he kept his body rigid, locked in an invisible casket.

But the guy didn’t stop screaming. He was feeling alive, feeling good. High five.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment