Metal behemoths Zeal & Ardor and Deafheaven hit Perth on Friday night at Chevron Gardens, delivering a one-two punch of powerhouse performances that this reviewer will not soon forget.
Zeal & Ardor came on first. For those unfamiliar, they are an avante-garde metal project and the brainchild of musical mastermind Manuel Gagneux. The premise was to combine negro spirituals with black metal – in Gagneux’s own words their sound emerged from the question “What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?”. What may sound half-baked in theory is certainly not in practice – Zeal & Ardor’s two albums thus far rank among the most distinct metal releases of the last five years, a blend of black metal ferocity and earthy spirituality. Metal’s answer to Southern Gothic if there ever was one.
Their set delivered. Gagneux, true to form, kept the focus on the music and the theatricality. Stage banter was kept to a minimum, with just a short introduction halfway through the set, politely concluding with “That’s all we’re going to say tonight, hope that’s OK”. Such reserve certainly didn’t carry through to the music – this was a blistering, technically perfect and emotionally powerful performance.
Unlike many of their counterparts, Zeal & Ardor deal in shorter, sub-five minute tracks. The hits, then, came thick and fast. Emerging from the fog with their logo illuminated, the band burst into In Ashes, their gospel chants leagues more powerful than on record. Fan favourite Servants came next, with Gagneux’s throat-shredding blues vocals taking centre stage. The pace didn’t let up. Blood In the River was epic, Gagneux punctuating his chants with heavy guitar thumps. Row Row got the audience clapping along, and You Ain’t Coming Back topped the first salvo, a beastly performance highlighting the band’s amazing vocal harmonies.
It’s worth mentioning here the ability of the band to translate their distinctive studio sound into pure performance theatre. Lined up all in a row, they looked like the devil’s messengers. The instrumental proficiency was all there – Gagneux and guitarist Tiziano Volante alternated seamlessly between tremolo walls of sound and thunderous riffs. The rhythm section, par for the course in the genre, was insane. However, most striking were the vocals. Gagneux’s voice is truly dynamic, moving between soulful gospel, solemn hymns, throat shredding blues, and of course black metal shrieks. Equally impressive was the backing vocals of bandmates Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist. Wagner’s delivery was dripping with emotion, while Obrist’s gruff shouts provided an amazing counterpoint to Gagneux’s more soulful approach. On record they sounded impressive enough – hearing it live felt like a full blown baptism.
Other highlights included Ship on Fire, its interlinking harmonies carried off beautifully, and the one-two closing punch of fan favourites Devil Is Fine and straight thrasher Baphomet. The peak, however, came with Built on Ashes, a truly effecting ballad and Gagneux’s finest performance of the night. Many black metal bands can rock – but it was reverential moments like these that have set Zeal & Ardor apart and carved them a special niche in the metal underground.
Usually Zeal & Ardor’s Satanic gospel would have been the emotional highpoint of a show. Not so when they’re being followed by Deafheaven, who truly eclipsed expectations. Deafheaven received widespread recognition with 2014’s Sunbather, a groundbreaking metal release which laid out the band’s modus operandi. Their sonic texture of choice is black metal, but the songwriting owes just as much to the huge sounds of shoegaze and post-rock.
The band’s studio albums are tightly composed, anthemic metal. Live, however, these songs are a truly cathartic experience. The band ripped through a lot of material from their latest album – ten plus minute epics Honeycomb, Canary Yellow and Worthless Animal were all featured. Insanely heavy twin guitar tremolo created a brutal wall-of-sound. When the band delved into softer textures, the results were beautiful – Worthless Animal’s arpeggiated opening for instance, or the delayed guitar lines on Sunbather, were even more beautiful than on record. This was music so enveloping that it inspired reverie – at many points I found myself closing my eyes, finding peace in the maelstrom.
But the real revelation was frontman George Clarke. His throat-shredding vocals were on point throughout, but it was his stage presence that really impressed. Decked out in a black singlet and elbow-high black gloves, he had an amazing grasp of the stage. Whether nimbly headbanging, reaching towards the sky or simply staring across at the enraptured audience, he channelled a brooding intensity that’s difficult to put into words. He oozed emotion, otherworldly charm, spookiness, and sex appeal at the same time. The highlight was undoubtedly closer Dream House, with the band somehow shifting the volume up a notch while Clarke knelt down and reached out to the crowd, his vocals reaching fever pitch. It was the perfect closer to an incredibly powerful performance.
Colour me a convert to the potential of black metal. Both bands outdid themselves on the night, in two stellar performances that transcended the genre.
Photos by Damien Crocker