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Deafheaven – Birthdays, London 08/11/13

December 12, 2013


As a nipper many of us possessed a revolving door policy in relation to hobbies that resulted in the cluttering up of attics with objects such as trombones, roller skates, tennis equipment and various esoteric sporting gear. For me it was the telescope, with which I had a year long extended fling with astronomy.

I have trenchant memories of these words: umbra, penumbra and antumbra. While watching – well, experiencing – Deafheaven live at Birthdays, these words became unearthed from a long-forgotten mossy corner of my (probably) decaying memory banks. This trio are three distinctive parts of a shadow often used to refer to shadows cast by celestial bodies; the umbra the extreme darkest part where no light can be found (a total eclipse), the penumbra where a portion of the light source is obscured (a partial eclipse), and the antumbra where the occluding body is entirely contained within the disc of the light source (so a bright ring is visible around the dark disc-shaped object). More on that shortly.

The San Franciscan’s second album Sunbather will deservedly feature highly on many albums of the year lists that are due to dominate, irritate and educate your faces over the coming month. It’s black metal. It’s post-rock. It’s terrifying. It’s beautiful. It’s the full range of emotions simultaneously that fuck with you, that will make you want to frantically punch the air while also weeping colossal rock-sized tears (weeping copyright Wil Cook). It’s that old Dylan Moran joke where in one ear someone whispers “you have just won the lottery”, while someone in the other ear says “but you only have 10 seconds to live”.

It’s concurrently darker than the nebulous heart of a serial killer, though as joyous and light as your finest drug trip as its peak. The umbra, penumbra, and atumbra all rolled into one exquisite celestial clusterfuck.

In a live setting inevitably all these senses feel a little more heightened, opening with the first number from the album in ‘Dream House’, a track about the obsession of wealth. First thought: a bad gig not to bring earplugs too. George Clarke’s screeching, wretched vocals are brought to the front slightly further for an added abrasive edge, how he’ll hold out an hour later at this level I have no idea. Industrial sized Halls Soothers possibly.

As ‘Dream House’ goes through its various offshoots and sonic tangents during the rapturous 10+ minute journey, the stage presence of Clarke slowly calcifies. His left hand air composes every note in a playful yet austere manner, though it’s all about his intense stare-outs with members of the audience towards the front. It’s seriously creepy in the best possible way, eyeballing people from the stage for what feels like an eternity, head down, eyes up, staring, staring through you into the soul. I’m way back in the crowd but even I can feel the acute awarkrdness the victim must be experiencing.

‘Irresistible’ follows, a track that is essentially an interlude as the noise in your face takes a backseat – this is where the Explosions of the Sky references hold gravity I guess. Shame about the shower of arseholes around the bar gabbering over the beauty of it all, but they’re soon blown out of the room by album title track ‘Sunbather’. Yes, we’re doing all of the Sunbather LP in order it seems, hooray.

If there was one stock quote for Deafheaven this year, it’s “Well I don’t normally like this sort of stuff but…”, and that’s largely down to a hugely unique (well, unique for those not au fait with black metal) stylistic approach to their sound, marrying this black metal core with something uncomfortably outside of the genre. As I take a sweeping look at the demographic of the audience this seems about right; in between a handful of cliché metal-heads are gig folk that you would see at, say Future of the Left, No Age and Weekend, which is handy as they support fellow San Franciscans (and best buds, which they both keep reminding us of awww) Deafheaven tonight and are wonderful in their delivery of post-punk grandiose shoegaze brouhaha. New LP Jinx and 2010’s Sport gel well, new tracks a little more cleaner and fuller sounding, a subtle expansion on their washed-out sonic palette. A band that I’d happily pay to see on their own, so yes, what a lovely bonus.

Another interlude-y number ‘Please Remember’ is an intangible metempsychosis, light-looped eerie and feedback-drenched guitar strands playing your soul like a harp. It’s an instrumental so Clarke has nothing to vocalise, yet he maintains his vivid stage presence and continues to eyeball anyone in sight, which subsequently feels even more intense without an abrasive wall of noise behind him. ‘Vetrigo’ releases the tension, and somewhere during the 15 minutes it actually breaks my face. I probably should mend that someday and reclaim the fragments of said destroyed face, now cruelly scattered on the floor of Birthdays.

“I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care, ” once said that Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero. Deafheaven is not this. It’s the antithesis of this almost; however there’s part of their sound that feels like it can be traced back to this numbing sensation, the bottomless pit of despair. Sunbather, and live here, is the result of coming out the other side and the intense sensation of starting to feel again, the vast emotional kaleidoscopic palette erupting in a throng of ecstasy unto your new world. The blinding colours and rich light emerging from a vast black hole – hey kind of like the brimming edges of the atumbra. It’s fucking cathartic, and profoundly glorious – and has helped propel Sunbather into the even higher reaches of my own album of the year list.

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