Deafheaven. Courtesy of Ground Control Touring.

Deafheaven Draws Pop Music Outsiders to Metal; But will the Showmanship Drive them Away?

Few genres of music are as beholden to listener expectations as metal. Most people have a fixed position going in to the arrangement, and they’ve likely already decided if it’s their thing before the first note is struck. It can also be a challenge for interested parties to make contact. New listeners might find themselves intimidated or put off by metal’s laundry list of silly prefixes—black, doom, death, stoner, speed, thrash, et al.—each of which comes with often specifically rigid parameters policed by a special class of musical pedant. People care about this. Just ask a dedicated metalhead to walk you through the differences between “sludge” and “doom,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, the most interesting metal bands not only obliterate the lines between these esoteric subcategories, they also tend to compel listeners beyond the genre’s niche. In the case of a band like Deafheaven, who gracefully pulverized an eager crowd at Club Dada on Saturday night, a rare successful effort is made to reach beyond the baseline subculture and engage a broader swath of listeners. Now the band seems to be negotiating just how broad that swath can be. To say that Deafheaven has had a good year since the breakout success of 2013’s Sunbather LP would be an understatement, and the diverse, jittering crowd lined up on Elm St. was testament to the momentum the band has been accumulating for the past thirteen months.

Before their set began, frontman George Clark—coiffed, square-jawed and striking—stood up on the monitor and summoned the crowd forward. He ushered the first twenty or so audience members to a raised platform in front of the outdoor stage, drawing audible groans from the rest of the crowd suddenly faced with the prospect of having paid $20 to stare at the band’s disembodied heads for the next hour or so. As the band launched into Sunbather opener “Dream House,” though,  it was clear that Clark was the one we were supposed to look at. He towered over the hungry mob, making intense eye contact and cycling through a number of eyeroll-inducing messiah poses as he screeched over his remarkably controlled rhythm section.

While it was Deafheaven’s name at the top of the bill, Pallbearer loomed ominously on Saturday night. The doom-y Arkansas quartet has spent the last two years supporting their excellent 2012 debut, Sorrow and Extinction, and recording this year’s Profound Lore Records follow-up, Foundations of Burden. If you can’t tell from those titles, Pallbearer’s somber, smoked-out brand of doom metal is rooted in a certain classicism, but the band’s sophisticated aesthetic and original songwriting amount to more than blind idol worship. Just as Deafheaven launches spiraling, emotive soundscapes from a traditional blackened metal palette, so too, does Pallbearer reconfigure the riff-focused sound of the late 70s for an audience who might not already have an intense devotion to bands like Dust and Candlemass.

Tonight’s show was Pallbearer’s last night on the tour, and their last show supporting their debut LP. (They’ll hit the road again on a European tour with YOB in September, after the August 19 release of Foundations of Burden.) Knowing this, it was hard not to feel an extra sense of certitude pulsing beneath Sorrow lynchpins like “Foreigner” and “An Offering of Grief.” It’s obvious that the band has taken that record’s relatively brief 48:51 runtime as far as they can, and they delivered that material like they still believed in it.

While Pallbearer played great songs with conviction, I can’t say that the band was particularly tight. Technical issues plagued the set, and—while the band soldiered through them with professionalism and poise—it occasionally threw their otherwise strong performance off kilter. The bass player was particularly vulnerable to mishap, and he  went through two guitars before sticking with one that seemed to fall out of tune every other measure. “It’s a good thing this is our last show on the tour,” he said sheepishly into the mic, “because everything’s broken.”

These cracks demonstrated how pristine Deafheaven’s set really was. Note for note, the band churned out its brand of dreamy black metal with deadly proficiency. Set closer “The Pecan Tree” was particularly spot-on, but it also illustrated some of the band’s foundational shortcomings. While music critics love to praise Sunbather’s embrace of non-metallic influences—particularly the sort of reverb-heavy post-rock crescendos that would feel at home on an episode of Friday Night Lights—it also begs the question, haven’t we heard this before? There’s a paint-by-numbers quality in these crossover elements which, in tandem with George Clark’s constant posturing, leaves the atmospheric corners feeling less like My Bloody Valentine and more like U2.

And there’s just no getting past George Clark. This is partly because he’s the only thing you could see from the crowd, and partly because the band’s live strategy is so thoroughly designed around his presence. From the opening blast, it  was clear that he would be our eccentric dictator for the evening, and some of us seemed more excited about this prospect than others. With every lull in the set’s breakneck pace, he would beckon the back of the crowd forward with two fingers and his nose upturned in affectation. It was a cringeworthy move typical of his off-putting persona, and—despite the band’s elegant delivery and technical prowess—I couldn’t help but feel complicit in what I felt was the collective response from the over-21 crowd not already pressed against the stage: “We’re fine here, thanks.”