Words And Photos By Drew Litowitz
Shoegaze and black metal haven’t always gone together. Deafheaven trick you into believing they’ve never been apart. On “Sunbather,” the band’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, two San Franciscan metal-heads sharpen soaring grandiosity into a gut-punch of epic dreamscapes and unintelligible barks. It’s part magical, part frightening, and wholly disorienting. And the record currently holds the top score on Metacritic at 97. It’s a crossover masterpiece. Like “Sunbather,” their Sunday night show at the Rock and Roll Hotel was similarly terrifying and life affirming.
Frontman George Clarke arrived on stage in his Goth-chic, all black everything: buzzed head, black button-down oxford, black jeans, and black leather gloves. He angled his serpentine body towards his minions–his back arched, one hand outstretched to the microphone-stand, one leg up on the front monitor. Though he was front and center, his stance resembled a hawk perched off somewhere in the wings; a predator zeroing in on his prey from a safe distance. He looked as serious as a heart attack. I thought I might suffer from one. I anxiously readied myself for what might be my final moments on our dear planet Earth. I was terrified.
Not knowing what to expect going into this show, and with a healthy dose of acute anxiety disorder, I was fairly certain this very experience could be my end. But before I could even attempt to quell my anxieties and brace myself, a thunderous rhythm leveled the space, and Clarke began yelping. Guitarist Kerry McCoy and the rest of the touring lineup were utterly composed, as an explosion shot out of the sound system like daggers. Being caught in this thundercloud, there was too much noise to really consider any of my own thoughts or feelings. This is what catharsis looks and feels like.
Clarke’s theatrical death-stare and accompanying gestures grounded the performance in earnest sincerity while simultaneously bordering on the absurd. He reached out to the crowd with sinister longing. He jabbed at his chest. He dragged his finger across his throat. At set’s end, he removed his leather gloves with his teeth, then licked his bare fingers. All the while, his vocals pierced through the fuzz. How could he scream so shrilly? How could he do it for so long? Why did he keep staring directly into my soul? Why was I enjoying it so much?
With music like this, the absence of space amplifies any gap in noise. The moments where machine-gun rhythms dropped out to reveal cavernous guitar surroundings, only to be eclipsed by Clarke’s harsh shrieks, were exhilarating. Though the record is a dynamic trip through various strains of shoegaze, metal, post-rock, and noise, Rock and Roll Hotel’s notoriously bad sounds lost out on a lot of this dynamism. It was mostly full-throttle METAL, save for a few relatively pleasant slower moments. It was hard to make much sense of anything. No space to think, no space to worry.
As was expected, the floor became part mosh-pit, and those up front continually locked hands with Clarke. He was the leader of an hour-long cult, and we loved every minute of his anger-fueled sermon.
If you’re ever feeling trapped inside your own head, get out to a black metal shoegaze show. You’ll be petrified into forgetting about anything else.