Considering the much larger size venues that Deafheaven are used to playing in their native U.S.A, Wellingtonian fans of the post-black metal band were lucky to catch them in the cosy Valhalla, Wellington’s reliable metal holdfast. The sold-out event filled the bar right to the back, but the gig still felt intimate and full of close-knit energy with the band living up to their recorded promises.
The much-discussed crossover appeal of the five-piece was apparent just from surveying the crowd and observing the diversity in age, gender, and fashion clique. This is reflected in the band’s music, which takes Scandinavian-inspired black metal as a starting point and stirs in some shoegaze-influenced atmosphere and sunshine. It’s sonically big and emotive, and a promising offering for a live experience. The crowd wasn’t disappointed.
Wellington’s own black metal duo Tuscoma did a good job of warming the place up before the headliners took the stage. Before Deafheaven came on stage, I’ve previously heard mixed remarks about vocalist George Clarke’s shrieking screams in the live performances of recent years, but from the punchy opening of the first song, it was apparent that, if he had faced difficulties, they weren’t present tonight. And he kept it up too, sustaining both the power and purity of the screeching vocals and the enthusiasm and energy the music required of him. Clarke tends to fall back on very similar on-the-one-beat phrasings in different songs, but I didn’t mind this compositional tendency too much while watching, as it was delivered powerfully every time.
Clarke spent much of the performance leaning into the audience, staring them down with his possessed-eyes look, or whipping his hair to the instrumental passages. The band were on fantastic form, drummer Daniel Tracy’s tight traditional black metal blast-beats keeping up a frenzied pace for the vast majority of the night. Guitarists Shiv Mehra and Kerry McCoy contributed heapings of thick, heavy atmosphere, bringing the shoegaze influences. The resulting music was as Deafheaven sound on record, only amplified - grandiose, dramatic, and unrelentingly so. All of the tracks had these same qualities and were built from the same musical blocks as each other, but this created a nice continuity throughout the set, as it didn’t go on for too long.
The setlist consisted of only seven songs, separated by periods of droning ambience, but the large length of each of them meant that fans got a decent hour and twenty minutes of music. They bowed out with Dream House, the opening cut from 2013’s classic Sunbather and therefore the song that introduced a large proportion of listeners to the band. It was a triumphant, intense and hard-hitting ending, with the band giving it everything they had right up until the last bars.
One unfortunate side-effect of hosting an internationally acclaimed band in a small bar like Valhalla is the sound of drink machines behind the counter running loudly through the (few) quieter guitar sections and stopping them from achieving the beautiful contrast they were meant to. But you have to be thankful to the place for serving as such a reliable venue for a strong and steady supply of heavy music.