The Wiltern stage is decorated with sunflowers. Against a backdrop of Super 8 footage, Deafheaven dive headfirst into “Honeycomb,” the lead single from this summer’s No Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. The shaky home videos appear to be from another time – old cars, idyllic homes, and clean cut pedestrians suggest that Deafheaven might be up to their old tricks, subverting familiar images of nuclear Americana. The title track from their 2013 breakthrough, Sunbather, explored the classist isolation of San Luis Obispo’s opulent suburbs, so the night’s projections assume a distinct sense of irony.
However, it slowly becomes apparent that the grainy, silent footage is of the band itself. We see them happy, traversing their native San Francisco as they lounge in Golden Gate Park, pose for photographs in the Presidio, and walk down streets lined with pastel Victorians. The vintage camera imparts the band’s journey with a rose-tinted glow, almost as if to evoke a nostalgia for the present. There is nothing ironic about this. Sporadically obscured by lens flare, lead singer George Clarke walks his Shi Tzu on a sunny day in the city.
Meanwhile onstage, draped in black, Clarke flings his hair in circles while dry humping a mic stand. The disparity between sound and vision would be striking if the music itself wasn’t so rife with contradictions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the performance of “You Without End,” where George Clarke’s usual low-decibel growl is paired with a wispy, mid-tempo instrumental, courtesy of dual guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra. Together, the combination sounds as if Clarke and his bandmates are playing the same song from two different dimensions, but each element works majestically to heighten the other. When I interviewed Clarke this summer, he said that Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was meant to be a “celebratory” record – celebrating the beauty and joy in everyday life when it feels as though the world is collapsing in on itself, elevated through Deafheaven’s bombastic brand of thrash-catharsis. On-screen, the band travels across the Bay Bridge, back home to their studio in Oakland, presumably to continue working after a day spent taking home-movies and enjoying each other’s company.
This is music borne of meditation, a temporary antidote to our troubled times. The band played old favorites, too. Their flawless execution of “Sunbather” showcased the dynamic skill of Deafheaven’s newest member, bassist Chris Johnson, who can churn out monolithic walls of sound just as deftly as he can glide along to the melody of “Worthless Animal.” Johnson’s buoyant technique is just another component of Deafheaven’s sonic evolution. Although they’ve been criticized for watering down their sound in recent years, the band itself has refused to be pigeonholed into a single defining aesthetic. Not surprisingly, the audience was as diverse as any I’ve seen in recent memory – middle-aged hipsters wearing J. Crew button-ups standing side by side with dyed-in-the-wool metalheads rocking eyeliner and Darkthrone shirts.
Increasingly, Deafheaven have become the spokespeople for earnest, high-octane rock that attracts fans from all corners of the music world. As a band, they relish the contradictions in their own sound and deal in heightened emotions, be it anger, sadness, or overwhelming joy. Deafheaven closed with “Dream House,” and after the lights went up, the crowd was chatty and excitable. Of course, it couldn’t last. We’d all go home and talk about the concert, then wake up in the morning ready to face a world as cruel and weird as it was the day before. But as I left the Wiltern that night, I thought to myself, “When the numbness of this tragic present starts to settle back in, I guess you’ll have to find me at the next Deafheaven show.”
—Blake Wagner, General Manager