Deafheaven highlight the beauty in black metal at their stunning London return

The genre fluid group mark their return to the UK with a set that revels in moments of human connection

The only thing more incongruous than Deafheaven’s sound is the venue that hosts their London return. With Fresher’s Week only just wrapped up, London’s ULU student union tonight plays host to a very different sort of evening, the scent of regrettable Jagerbombs still lingering in the air as crowds of black-clad metal fans fill out a room more used to day-glo club nights.

Against the odds, though, Deafheaven make this bizarre locale their own. Striding on stage to the triumphant strains of ‘Honeycomb’, guitarist Kerry McCoy sporting an Oasis Knebworth t-shirt, they highlight the anthemic edge to their genre-fluid sound from the off. Through the ensuing eleven minutes, they exercise breathtaking restraint, the pregnant pauses and soaring atmospherics of that recent single exhibiting the same build and release of tension as a neo-classical composer, as frontman George Clarke punctuates his searing screams with moves more befitting of a conductor at the Proms.

Deafheaven live at London ULU (Photo: Abbie Shipperley/NME)

That contrast between beauty and gloom defines the evening. As Clarke’s black dress shirt comes to resemble an oil slick poured across his back, the band slip into the brief breather of ‘Canary Yellow’, an ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’-heavy set surging forward. Clarke clutches at a tambourine, but – rather than tapping it against his palm, as is conventional wisdom – he wields it like a hand-axe, swinging it with ever-increasing fury into his mic stand. By the time the gang vocals at the end of ‘Canary Yellow’ see the crowd indulge in a rare moment of singalong euphoria, that juxtaposition feels unitary – everyone in the room relishing the outsider status of Deafheaven’s music.

It’s not all about reclusion, though  – there are more than enough moments of pure bliss to prevent this Friday night from slipping into blackness. ‘Sunbather’ sees one erstwhile crowdsurfer travel all the way from the back of the room to the stage, letting out a note-perfect scream as he connects with Clarke’s microphone, while ‘Worthless Animal’ finds guitarist Shiv Mehra taking to the front of the stage, noodling away like Keith Richards at his most showboating.

Deafheaven live at London ULU (Photo: Abbie Shipperley/NME)

As the band return to the stage for an encore of ‘You Without End’, Kerry taking to the piano to soften the edges of their sound, members of the crowd begin to yell birthday wishes to George (who turned 30 yesterday). Before long, the whole crowd is singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the blushing metal frontman.

It’s those moments of humanity amongst all the chaos which truly define Deafheaven. As closer ‘Dream House’ sees them soar to the skies, Clarke himself takes to the crowd, diving headfirst into his throng. It’s a physical connection to rival the emotional one that Deafheaven have gunned for all evening – the perfect encapsulation of their poignant approach.