Review by Brendan Twist
So in 2011 the indie music community got really excited about black metal. There were think pieces, and much-ballyhooed buzz bands, and the inevitable hey-we-were-here-first backlash from the tr00 kvlt fans. It was fun, for a while, to see this potent subgenre, long relegated to the margins of musical discussion, getting so much ink. But hipsters, it seems, can find a way to make anything annoying, and we’re nearing that threshold for black metal – or at least for conversations about it.
Fortunately, there really are a lot of good bands inspiring all this talk. Two of them played at the Big Top on Tuesday: Alcest, a French group that’s been melding black metal with the dreamy sounds of shoegaze for years; and Deafheaven, a band that’s so damn hot right now that NPR and Esquire – f***ing Esquire* – dubbed them among the best acts at SXSW in Austin last week.
Alcest, who headlined, began as a solo project of multi-instrumentalist Stéphane Paut, who previously did time in more traditional, corpse-painted black metal outfits. Along the way, he’s picked up a full-time drummer and a touring rhythm guitarist and bassist (Paut plays lead and sings). In January, the band released its third full-length, Les Voyages de l’Âme, which refines the slow, shimmering, deeply melodic sound heard on 2010 breakout album Écailles de Lune.
Paut, who looks kind of like Adrien Brody with a massive mop of curly black hair, has said that Alcest’s music is about a fantasyland. Throughout the band’s hour-long set, his tremolo picking and soothing vocals – kind of like what you might hear if you searched for a spa channel on Pandora – evoked lullabies and dreamscapes, if loud ones. The heart of the band lies in the tension between the songs’ spacey moments and their tenser, screamier ones. They came together brilliantly on set-closer “Percées de Lumière.”
It’s clear that Paut is more interested in melody than metal at this point, which is a good thing. It’s nice knowing there’s the possibility of a galloping battle riff around every corner – it keeps you on edge – but those elements of Alcest’s music just aren’t as interesting, and there are plenty of other bands that do them better.
Deafheaven also traffic in a melodic, shoegazing style of black metal, but theirs is most effective when steamrolling at full blast. Drummer Trevor Deschryver propelled the band; he peppered his blastbeats with long, tumbling fills, and was a joy to watch. The guitarists used less of their fretboards than Alcest – not a ton of variety here – favoring a unified, jackhammering, wall of noise as they pounded through cuts from 2011’s Roads to Judah. Perhaps it was the SXSW effect; they sounded like a band that’d just played a lot of shows and was in the zone.
The star of the set, though – the star of the whole evening – was Deafheaven singer George Clarke. It’s impossible to ignore his appearance – blond pageboy haircut, WASP-y face – and its general incongruence with everything we’ve come to expect from extreme metal. He just doesn’t look the part. So when he gets up on stage and starts freaking out, you’re kind of like…this is interesting.
Clarke’s vocals have one mode, a shrill shriek. They complement the aggressive tenor of the music, though you’ve heard this sound before. But Jesus, man, the performance! He thrusts one foot onto the monitor and strikes power poses. He drools all over the stage. He stalks the audience with psycho eyes. He screams with conviction and the veins bulge out of his neck. When he’s not singing, he’s writhing around with his face stuffed in the crux of his elbow, or making weird, sexual faces, like he’s trying to make it with his mic stand. I found myself laughing at how absurd and overwrought the whole thing was. Then I thought, “If this guy sees me laughing at him, he may step out into the crowd and murder me.” What I’m trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that his bats*** crazy routine – whatever it is, wherever it comes from – is awesome, and it totally works. Just when I’d begun to think that more metal bands ought to go instrumental, George Clarke and Deafheaven reminded me how entertaining a great frontman can be.
*The same Esquire whose current web headlines include “Dispatches From the World of Men: The Latest on Marriage, Drinking, Money, Sports + More,” and “The End of Tebow: Why He Should Never Start Again.”
Miscellanea: Plaid button-downs outnumbered black T-shirts by a wide margin…
The Big Top’s cartoon-goth, Tim Burton-esque artwork – skeleton brides, spooky Victorian houses in pixie-dotted landscapes – was a great match for Alcest’s dark dream vibe…
Overheard: “I had the s***tiest f***ing experience at Siberia. I was told it was going to be a mod dance party.”… Barghest was supposed to open the show, but cancelled. A sign on the door said one of their members was in jail. Whom Do You Work For? played instead… A folding table featured literature from The Iron Rail, an anarchist bookstore and library on Barracks Street. Pamphlets included “The Housing Monster” and “Abolish Restaurants.”