I like to think my risks are calculated and backed up by math and formal logic. I knew seeing Deafheaven on this tour would be a risk. Would the show deliver the comforting weighted blanket that I've come to associate with the band, or would it be something else – maybe even something that could ruin the band for me? After passing on the last album I determined that I should skip the show as well – it just wasn't worth the gamble. Then I was told that Midwife was opening. That changed the calculous, tipping the scales at the last minute.
At exactly 8pm Madeline Johnston walked onto the blue-lit Granada stage and picked up her guitar. I'm not sure she introduced herself or the name of her project, but after triggering a subtle backing track, Midwife's five-song set was underway. In opener "Christine's World," she slowly strummed her guitar to an exotic tuning while the backing track provided warm piano chords that served as metronome more than melody. Throughout the night her gauzy and ethereal vocals (shaped and sculpted by processors) nestled perfectly in the spaces between laconic strums. Later in the set, Johnston would instead pick the strange arpeggios of her invented tunings over even sparser backing tracks. For "Colorado," that track was no more than a heartbeat. This was the "heaven" part of what Midwife refers to as "heaven metal." And like at church, the audience stood reverently while Johnston played her ambiguous slowcore psalms of despair. While there are soaring moments of dense shoegaze on Midwife's albums, the live setting seldom realized the "metal" part of her conceived genre. The audience got a small taste of those crescendos during closer "S.W.I.M." from 2018's Forever, still few heads were banged during Midwife's set – most were still and hypnotized by the strange siren.
Up next were Arizona's Holy Fawn. I would have to re-watch the band's 45-minute set a dozen times to fully understand everything that the band incorporates into its music, and then another dozen times before I felt I could write about it with some insight or substance. Of course, I didn't have repeat viewings, so I'll try to keep this brief in hopes of keeping my uninformed suppositions to a minimum. The band opened with "Candy" from its most recent release, 2020's Black Moon EP. Like each of the six songs played, the song was expansive. It opened with a thick shoegaze introduction that gave way to a nondescript alternative verse and chorus structure, only to return for a head-banging climax late in the song. And this is how the set continued – songs that didn't combine genres, but rather abutted genre against disparate genre. The band's shoegaze elements were satisfying, the heavy apexes delightful (particularly the one that punctuated the back half of "Arrows"), but most of each song's elements were indistinguishable from a bevy of radio-ready alternative bands – none of which I relish. As such I found myself enjoying only portions of songs, and uninterested in each whole. However, based on the audience's response, my disinterest seemed to be aberrant, so the less I say, the better.
While Holy Fawn stacked genres, headliners Deafheaven are known for merging them. The San Francisco band is credited as popularizing the "blackgaze" portmanteau genre that unifies the blast beats and sinister screams of black metal with the gliding soundscapes of shoegaze. At least that was the story until the band's new album Infinite Granite was released. That album, the band's fifth, features polarizing songs with clean vocals and sanitized compositions that downplay the black metal elements that brought the band to prominence. And this is where the band began its set, with "Shellstar" from that album.
As the song began, George Clarke's tall thin figure danced about the back-lit stage, his fingers constantly moving and twitching when not wrapped around the microphone. Cofounding guitarist Kerry McCoy was to his left, pacing forward and back. To his right were guitarist Shiv Mehra and bassist Chris Johnson. Drummer Daniel Tracy's small four-piece kit was at the back of the stage. While none were stoic, it was only Clarke who put on a show. The scene continued through two new more songs – "In Blur" and "Great Mass of Color." The final song of that eighteen-minute trio was positively bouncy and uplifting – the sort of thing I'd have lauded 4AD for releasing in the early '90s. I've never been more disappointed by good music in my life.
And then the shift came. The band returned to 2018's Ordinary Corrupt Human Love for the twelve-minute opus "Honeycomb." Clarke suddenly stopped dancing, strangled the microphone stand, and unleased tortured howls. The formerly chiming guitars were replaced with riffs and melodic leads that climbed and soared all the while avoiding the chaos of thrashing tempos. Slowly Clarke's vocals faded, and a long instrumental coda pulled the audience beautifully skyward. The band continued with 2014's "From the Kettle onto the Coil" with its aggressive drumming, anguished vocals, and intense tremolo picking, transforming the audience into a pit of bodies in motion. The song has a short halftime but eventually builds to a euphoric chorus as Clarke repeats "I am what I always was / Gleaming and empty." A few songs later the band closed its eight-song set with "Mombasa" also from Infinite Granite. The dreamy song concludes with a three-minute post-rock explosion of rapid-fire beats and heavenly guitars that gave both camps exactly what they had come to hear.
The crowd had barely started into its perfunctory "One more song" chant when Clarke returned to the microphone asking if the audience had time for two more. The band reached deeper into its back catalog for the encore concluding with "Brought to the Water" (2015) and eventually "Dreamhouse" from 2013's seminal Sunbather. That song is a long, occasionally crude crusher with exulting guitars. The abstract projections aimed at the stage wall lit the tops of nodding heads of the audience as everyone experienced the collective catharsis of the closer's final stanza of dialogue: "I'm dying / Is it blissful? / It's like a dream / I want to dream."
Long after the feedback subsided, and fans started to file out, I remained spellbound by Deafheaven. The wager had paid off. Even without the engrossing set from Midwife, even with the uneven set from Holy Fawn, even though Deafheaven's set featured five songs from an album that I stubbornly shun, the night was an unmitigated success. And to think, I almost didn't chance it. Was my math wrong, or is logic just something that shouldn't apply to an iconoclast like Deafheaven?