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Review: Black metal’s in fashion, but Deafheaven still shrieks on its own terms

Review: Black metal’s in fashion, but Deafheaven still shrieks on its own terms
George Clarke with Deafheaven at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on March 13, 2019. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When the Grammy nominations for rock were unveiled in December, many fans were pleasantly surprised to see the now L.A.-based quintet Deafheaven on the list for metal performance. The group — inspired by Scandinavian black metal and ambient instrumental rock — was nominated for its single “Honeycomb,” a typically ferocious but also expansive and (almost) accessible single from its 2018 album “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love.”

The win ultimately went to another well-regarded veteran group, High On Fire, but it was a nice sign that the Grammys were paying attention to the acts driving and expanding the genre. Deafheaven always had its skeptics among ultra-orthodox black metal fans. But to judge from its searing headline set at the Wiltern on Wednesday night, it’s bringing a lot more new ones into the fold.

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In some ways, as rock has waned in the public eye, black metal has never been more fashionable as an aesthetic. A new biopic about the infamous ’90s Norwegian scene, rife with murders and church burnings, is coming soon from director Jonas Ackerlund (who himself played in the groundbreaking band Bathory). Mainstream rap and pop acts like Future, Rihanna and even Justin Bieber have adopted inscrutable black metal fonts in their visuals (Rihanna had a stage backdrop designed by Belgian artist Christophe Szpajdel; Bieber hired logo designer Mark Riddick for tour merch).

Maybe that consumptive creep of the mainstream is what keeps some fans on edge about Deafheaven. But ever since its 2013 breakout album “Sunbather,” with its deceptively sorbet-colored cover and occasionally pretty interludes, Deafheaven hit all the requirements of black metal while introducing complicating new elements. It also had a frontman, George Clarke, with undeniable starpower to go with his unholy shrieking.

Deafheaven is a black metal-inspired band with entry points for non-genre fans. Most serious metalheads made up their minds about that quandary long ago. But its Grammy nomination signals that it may be the band to take this scene to credible new mainstream heights on its own terms.

On Wednesday, the Savannah quartet Baroness played just before Deafheaven, and its eerie vocal harmonies and the muscular, thoughtful riffing from guitarist Gina Gleason (a star in her own right) provided a framework for the boundaries Deafheaven is pushing now.

George Clarke with Deafheaven at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on March 13, 2019.
George Clarke with Deafheaven at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on March 13, 2019. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“Ordinary Corrupt Human Love” had some of Deafheaven’s most riff-inclined songwriting and melodic vocals to date. Still brutal, to be sure, but the kind of record an otherwise adventurous rock fan (or Grammy committee) could get behind.

At the Wiltern, the band seemed to know it now had a few bona fide hits in its catalog. But it also doubled down on what it’s best at — creating narrative and explosive tension over a long show.

While other contemporary acts like Author & Punisher and Uniform use digital textures and electronic instruments to thicken out their sound, Deafheaven relies on the old-fashioned virtues of being in a very well-rehearsed band. It takes some pure athleticism to play with that much speed and precision at this level, and the band — particularly guitarist and cofounder Kerry McCoy and drummer Daniel Tracy — never lost a breath over the hour-plus set. Clarke prowled the stage with uncommon charisma: not merely seething and howling, but with an arena rocker’s sense of how to use his body as a visual instrument.

“Worthless Animal” and “Canary Yellow” have become fan favorites from the new album cycle, and the band knew exactly how to weave them into the pure blasts of energy from “Sunbather” and “New Bermuda.” The new, writhing single “Black Brick” pulls more from classic thrash, and its sudden peals of violence put everything else around it in sharper focus. Texture and drama are baked into these songs, and sequencing them well clearly matters a lot to this band.

By the time it got to closer “Dream House,” most fans’ introduction to the band, it had earned every bit of its emotional fireworks. It might not be a radio hit yet, but it definitely is a festival closer. If more fans are introduced to this genre through a band with such skill and restlessness, that’s a great thing for metal. And if Deafheaven, whose scope expands with each album, still wants a Grammy on its mantel, it clearly has the means to get there.

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