Live Review: Deafheaven, Zeal & Ardor

25 February 2019 | 4:06 pm | Christopher H James

"Wielding beautiful flowing melodies, the kind purists baulk at, Deafheaven played new cuts that were heartbreakingly pretty at times."

Pic by Linda Dunjey

Pic by Linda Dunjey

Image 1 of 5
More Deafheaven More Deafheaven

Talk about taking diabolical liberties. In the intentionally bleak realm of black metal, there are many purists resistant to change who preach that catchy melodies are out and “clean” vocals are a no-no. As for fusing black metal with African-American spirituals as Zeal & Ardor do? And with backing vocalists? Inconceivable. Perhaps with this in mind, the five members of Zeal & Ardor who weren't the drummer formed an evenly spaced line across the lip of the stage as if assuming a combat formation, with singer, guitarist and bandleader Manuel Gagneux dead centre. If their music sounds a little odd on paper, live it all comes dramatically together. Mixed down, their guitars were less integral than the compelling vocal hooks and stomping death march drums, which prompted wild and unusual responses from bewitched onlookers who clapped along as if enjoying a bonfire singsong. By the end, the band’s weird alchemy and expressive performance, not least on a possessed rendition of Row Row, had transformed an appreciative smattering of early birds into a raucous mob of hardwired zealots.

Watching other bands at the Festival Gardens, the stage has sometimes seemed a bit oversized with large pockets of unused space. But for Deafheaven it was barely enough, such was their overspill of energy. Waving the mic stand as if it were a flag and sporting elbow-length black PVC gloves of an upmarket S&M type, singer George Clarke was magnetic. Together with his instinctive, unpredictable shape-throwing, the sense of theatre was completed with a psychedelic backdrop that looked to have originated from the imagination of Mandy director Panos Cosmatos.

Wielding beautiful flowing melodies, the kind purists baulk at, Deafheaven played new cuts that were heartbreakingly pretty at times, exhilarating at others, as the combined hit of Honeycomb and Canary Yellow rose and swooped like an emotional rollercoaster. The band clearly fed off the audience’s energy, notably when some good old-fashioned slam-dancing erupted, Clarke respondinh by working the front row with animal intensity. In return, they pogo-ed to breakthrough songs Sunbather and Dream House as the surprising springiness of the floorboards created an almost trampoline-like effect. These sorts of antics are a rarity for a black metal gig, but by this point, any semblance of rules or order had long since been tossed out with the lifejackets. It was a night where anything seemed possible.