Imagine you’re at O’Hare Airport. You’ve walked onto the runway and you’re standing in front of an idle jet engine. You wait there patiently until the pilot finally sits behind the cockpit and starts the plane. As the rotors start to spin, the sound of the engine grows louder and leads to a deafening explosion of sound that envelops your senses, leaving you in a vulnerable state of stimulation.
That’s the kind of experience I had when I saw Deafheaven live.
All hyperbole aside, Deafheaven is a loud band — almost impossibly loud. Its show on Oct. 30 at the Metro (3730 N. Clark St.) proved that to be true. But contrary to what one might think about a band with the word “deaf” in its name, the group revels in the use of quieter volumes, balancing pure brain-melting aggression with melodic introspection, creating a unique experience for the audience.
Deafheaven formed roughly five years ago in San Francisco with vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy. The band has since gone on to release three full albums and two EPs, including its newest LP, New Bermuda. After becoming a quintet, Deafheaven released its debut album, Roads to Judah, to general acclaim among critics, landing on Pitchfork Media’s list of top metal albums in 2011. The album stuck to the conventions of the black metal genre, but it was the band’s sophomore effort, Sunbather, that launched the group into wider success. The album ranked 130 on the Billboard Hot 200 and incorporated softer, more accessible post-rock elements, giving a gentler entry point into the group’s non-traditional take on black metal.
Deafheaven is now touring on the release of New Bermuda. While the post-rock influences of Sunbather are still present in the new material, Deafheaven is still experimenting and growing as a group.
The Chicago set opened with “Brought to the Water,” the first song on New Bermuda. Starting with an ominous backing track, the song quickly burst into a full-band assault. Things really got started when McCoy transitioned the piece into thrash-style freak-out with a heavy rat-a-tat guitar line.
While the rest of the band members stood back focused on their instruments, Clarke stood front and center with one foot on a speaker as though he were the captain of a ship looking out onto a sea of cutoff denim jackets and clenched fists. He frequently reached out into the audience, beckoning fans to come as close as they could to the stage. All the while, he sang in a banshee wail, his voice piercing through the thick distortion of the guitars and pummeling percussion.
Deafheaven’s current drummer, Daniel Tracy, is some kind of superhuman when it comes to his raw ability to pound on his kit. Through the entire set, he managed to keep pace with each song’s ridiculous speed without fail. Between double time kick drums and machine gun drum rolls, Tracy never wavered and approached each song with the same intensity.
The songs themselves seemed to tow the line between agony and ecstasy. The vicious nature of Deafheaven’s crunchy, heavy melodies provide a cathartic release of aggression and despair. However, songs such as “Come Back” feature extended sections of soft composition. These quieter portions display the group’s mastery of mood and variety of songwriting.
But the mixture doesn’t always work. New track “Gifts for the Earth” juxtaposes Deafheaven’s two modes too heavily, mixing gentle indie-pop guitar instrumentation with Clarke’s otherworldly howl. It was the only real miss in an overall fantastic set.
Some fans of the black metal genre disapprove of Deafheaven for the inclusion of these softer elements, claiming it’s not “true” black metal. From the way the members of Deafheaven present themselves, it kind of seems that’s the point. They are the antithesis of the black metal aesthetic — no long hair, no makeup, no tight leather pants. They’re just a group of dudes in T-shirts making a beautiful racket. Deafheaven is still a black metal group, just not the one traditionalists want it to be.
Deafheaven won’t be back in Chicago for a while. The band will be too busy finishing up the rest of its U.S. tour before moving on to rock Europe. But those looking to try and capture the experience of Deafheaven can find its music in almost every major online music service (iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp — take your pick). Wherever you listen to the band, make sure you’re sitting down and the volume is turned way, way up.