Wreck & Reference
June 2, 2014
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Losing your hearing with old age.
Half were just barely post-pubescent. The other half was quite a bit older. Despite the difference in age, there was a lot these two groups shared. Most wore black, and quite a few came alone.
This was the crowd at Deafheaven, the San Francisco-based black metal and post-rock band. Even if many of these people didn't know each other, by night's end, the men and women in front would at least come to know each other's touch and sweat. During the very first song, "Dream House," a ring formed before the stage, because, at its very front, throughout the show, was lead singer George Clarke. At his foot was a circle of the passionate and faithful: Twenty or so bodies pressed together with arms stretched forward and fingers spread wide, toward Clarke. Around them was a semi-circle of space spotted with crowdmembers who either jumped forward, into the circle at front, or paced back and forth through the space, swinging their arms in sync with the crash of the drums.
The circle at front, with their bodies pressed into one another, grabbed at Clarke's sweat-soaked shirt. They placed their hands on his head. They touched his belly. They supported him when he made his body stiff, spun, and fell into the crowd, corpse-like. And he accepted it all without a change in facial expression. Instead, he expressed himself with acrobatic movement, which, in its intensity and control, was masterful and often demonic.
His movements varied in size and speed. Often he would throw his whole body into the performance, as he would jump forward and thrash his arms with tremendous speed. After such a frenzy, he would come to a halt and, very deliberately and very slowly, he would raise his arms, bend them forward, palm up, and wag his index and middle finger back and forth - "Come at me," he teased, and then, again at a great speed, he would jump, thrash, and scream. At times, in the way he followed violence -- quick, frenetic movements around the stage -- with stillness -- a fixed gaze, stiff torso, and arms that spread out oh so very slowly -- he often appeared vampiric.
At other times, Clarke was less sinister but no less severe or deliberate. He surrendered -- he spread his arms up in the air and closed his eyes as two guitars, bass, and drums thundered behind him. He was sexual -- he stretched his arm out into the air, bent it back toward him, twirled his hand, brought his fingers to his tongue and licked. He was loving -- he brought his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss to the audience.
With every one of these poses, the audience at front responded. When Clarke buried his face in his hands and bent forward, the group up front engulfed him. They embraced him. When Clarke screamed, mouth wide open, at a fan at his knee, the fan in turn opened his mouth and screamed. Clarke then kneeled to him until their mouths were about an inch from one another -- until Clarke spat into the fan's mouth, stood up, and continued to raise hell.
On record, Deafheaven's music doesn't feel this communal. It's not something you dance to with your friends, or music where you throw your arm around a buddy's shoulder and sway. Deafheaven's music sounds like your own personal headspace at its most volatile.
First, we hear anger. The lyrics are often illegible; they're howled and, more than that, drowned in guitar and drums. The vocals come in and out of the music, but the guitars and drums often remain, churning on and on as if without reprieve.
Eventually, however, we do feel release. A guitar solo will emerge and frame that drone with notes that rise and fall. Or the drums will drop out and the guitars will simply dissipate: one guitar remains, and it plays three chords back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It's quiet, melodic, and even peaceful, much like the music of Explosions in the Sky. With Deafheaven, though, slow, melodic post-rock's beauty is more tense. These passages' spare quality feels so delicate compared to the earlier assault of guitars that they become fragile and even precious -- we know that wall of guitar will inevitably return.
When the band replicated this sound at Great American Music Hall -- and they did so flawlessly -- the crowd might not have danced together. But there was nonetheless a communal experience in our collective response to the show: for the group at front, it meant fighting back as the band pummeled the crowd with guitars, bass, and drums. This group crowd-surfed, shoved, and jumped on each other to match Clarke's own violent gait. The rest of the crowd chose to be decimated -- for them, the most appropriate response was simply to stand in awe.
No clapping? At most shows, it feels appropriate to applaud the band after a song. At Deafheaven, it feels old-fashioned and, frankly, puny. After being washed over by the band's tidal wave of guitars and receiving Clarke's scream, applause, no matter how fervent, feels small.