I admit it. I have a tenuous relationship with metal. Black metal in particular. While on one hand I recognize the immense cathartic power metal can have, I have often found the politics of Norwegian black metal to be reprehensible. Racism, murder, church-burnings – not my scene. This violent legacy left on black metal by bands coming out of Norway especially is something every subsequent generation of black metal bands have had to grapple with. It is perhaps this tension that’s inherent within Deafheaven making them an indispensable listen.
Opening for prog-metal giants Between the Buried and Me, Deafheaven took the stage at the Phoenix in Toronto on Friday night. From the very first tune they unleashed on to the crowd, it became apparent they were no ordinary black metal band. The band opened with “Dream House” – a minor miracle of the genre in that it somehow manages to sound light and triumphal despite – its inherent heaviness. What becomes clear during the song is that there is more at work in the band’s DNA than just black metal. The wall of sound, the layers of dense, distorted sound, the expanse of their sonic palate all seems to borrow from shoegaze giants like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.
The Deafheaven setlist consisted mostly of songs from their Sunbather album, as they made their way through “Irresistible”, “Sunbather” and “The Pecan Tree”. Thinking back on their setlist, it makes sense why this band has provoked the ire of black metal purists everywhere. The blastbeats are there, so are the throat-shredding vocals and the ultra-heavy guitars. But what also emerges in the fray are delicate, clean passages that seem to radiate beauty. And unlike so much of black metal, which tends to drag listeners down into the mire of sonic confrontation, the music made by Deafheaven is characterized by a sense of ascendancy, and a hard-won sense of equilibrium emerges after periods of soul-shattering turmoil. A terrible beauty, to paraphrase Yeats.
The headliners for the night Between the Buried and Me had their work cut out after Deafheaven’s set. The prog-metal giants decided to play all of The Parallax II: Future Sequence in its entirety at the Phoenix. Now prog-metal is a genre that occasionally straddles the line between technical hyper-proficiency and Spinal Tap levels of wankery. Mercifully, Between the Buried and Me largely managed to avoid the pitfalls of the genre by doing what they do best: fusing death metal with proggy passages reminiscent of bands like Rush and Dream Theater. Characterized by whiplash riffing, drop-of-a-dime time signature changes, and brutal blastbeats, the band displayed a knack for discovering the melodicism that was latent in their compositions.