Live Review: Deafheaven at Islington Assembly Hall, London – August 25, 2023

Two years on from the release of their ‘lighter’ album Infinite Granite, California black metal masters Deafheaven remain on the road, delighting fans with their unfathomable instrumental bluster. With the separation from their most recent release, they seemingly don’t feel the need to draw too heavily from it and are instead digging through their grab-bag of greats to deliver what must be one of the most forceful ‘greatest hits’ sets out there.

In London they launched their attack with their 2021 standalone single “Black Brick”, which has become a perfect set opener thanks to its uncompromising thrust on all fronts: percussively, vocally and of course with those intertwining guitars that rain down fire. What seems different, compared to previous Deafheaven live shows that I’ve attended, is the brightness of the stage – Infinite Granite gave us more of Geoge Clarke’s singing voice, and it seems their light show now wants us to see the quintet all the more clearly too – to connect with these five dudes as if we’re just watching them practice in their garage. It also gave us more light to appreciate Clarke’s unique crab-walk style of moving around the stage, a movement that, despite its oddness, somehow draws the viewers deeper into the fray.

Having steeled us for what’s to come with that opener, Clarke – not for the last time on the night – demanded “if you know this song, I want to see you right here”, indicating the spot right in front of the barrier where he would delight in feeding off the energy of unkempt moshing and bobbing. And they unleashed the perfect song to get the desired effects: “Sunbather”, the title track from their epochal 2013 album. This year is the 10th anniversary of Sunbather and Deafheaven have been playing the record front to back in some shows – and the recent performances have ensured that this song, and others from the album, are as viciously sharp as ever. Needless to say, the crowd instantly gave Clarke what he wanted with a mass of bodies charging to the front to delight in the fiery glow of Shiv Mehra, Chris Johnson, Kerry McCoy and Daniel Tracy’s torrential playing.

A relative breather was needed after that extensive workout and the band gave us one with a double header of tracks off Infinite Granite, Clarke invitingly suggesting “dance with me” before providing some eel-like body swerves. The glacial glide of “In Blur” felt like a much needed shower to douse the overheating crowd, Clarke’s singing voice a balm and still a shock compared to his more viper-like shrieking voice. In fact, it’s not just Clarke’s voice that is transformed; between this track and the following bolt of shoegaze “Great Mass of Color”, the band seems almost entirely different – underscored especially by Mehra and Johnson leaning in to offer harmonies – something unseen during the rest of the night’s offerings.

As ascendant and enjoyable as the Infinite Granite cuts were, when Clarke announced that the next track would be taken from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love there was a growl of appreciation that carried a sense of hunger for heaviness. Deafheaven delivered with the album’s closer, “Worthless Animal”, a song in which each of the five members had their moment to really show off their skills. Across the song’s 10 minutes, the good ship Deafheaven guided us across choppy seas, Tracy’s intricate drumming battering the hull while Johnson’s bass kept the boat tacking forward through it all. It’s when Mehra and McCoy’s dueling guitars took over in a firestorm of aural fireworks that rapture descended upon the crowd, Clarke’s shrieks the icing on the doom cake, his intricate hand movements transmitting the electricity of the guitars into the crowd’s swelling mass.

When Clarke then announced that it would be their final song of the night, it seemed unbelievable – they’d only played five tracks, but of course their extensive runtime and involving nature had made the time disappear. Fortunately, the disappointment was soon eradicated as Tracy, Mehra and McCoy launched the uncompromising opening bluster of Sunbather closer “The Pecan Tree”. What followed in the audience was an indefinable blur of breathless growling along and uncontrollable head wobbling as the unrelenting volcano of emotion spewed pure, glorious noise. During the song’s atmospheric pauses, circle pits opened up in anticipation, people lost in reverie, waiting patiently for the next crush when sweat would go sailing between bodies as fluidly as the transmission of inspiration from band to audience.

Of course we knew it wouldn’t really be the last song of the night, but the brief pause before Deafheaven returned for their encore was a much needed moment of respite – because what they had in store for the true ending would require everything. As soon as the distorted church bells of “Brought to the Water” started to clang, everyone steeled themselves for a wild ride. Thrusted onwards by Johnson savagely plucking his bass like a death knell calling us to an unknown cataclysm, the crowd surged with each of the song’s dynamic shifts, each of its fireball riffs, and each of its Oppenheimer-worthy sonic detonations.

Ten years on from the release of Sunbather, its totemic single “Dream House” remains Deafheaven’s live closer (except of course when they play the album in order). Everyone knows it’s coming, but the rapture is never anything less than complete. Battered by the thunderous opening segment, the crowd bumbled and bounced like corn kernels popping into their final form. During the song’s mid-way instrumental break, Clarke descended from the stage and climbed up the barrier to be next to his people in the mosh pit, holding his microphone above the mass and stirring us like a cauldron of chaos, preparing us for the final onslaught. Unfailingly, as Deafheaven enter that crescendo the effect of the noise and everyone shouting along is – as the words describe – heavenly, dream-like, vivid. Everyone in that moment connected in a reverie of beautiful death. It may sound overwrought on paper; the transcendent nature of this song heard live is simply something that has to be experienced. A decade down and “Dream House”, like all the other Sunbather cuts, still kicks like a mule, aurally and emotionally.

Clarke promised that next time Deafheaven will be back in London they’ll have new music. No matter what they release next, their grip over the audience on this night was enough to ensure that they’ll all be back.