This Cerberus disguised as a tour is one of the finest rock triple-bills in recent memory.
Emo’s, Austin, Texas
Good things come in threes, though our definition of “good” here can’t be related to anything saintly. Baroness and Deafheaven’s co-headlining tour with Zeal & Ardor opening was a full fireworks display of what metal can be. Between Baroness’ canon-stomping catalog, Deafheaven’s swift evolution to torchbearers of black metal and Zeal & Ardor’s Satanic mutations, this Cerberus disguised as a tour is one of the finest rock triple-bills in recent memory.
Switzerland’s Zeal & Ardor arrived after a Music for Airports-ass synth vibe, all of them wearing cowls and scowls. Mastermind Manuel Gagneux has been tinkering with his Frankenstein monster of Blues, Gospel, Spirituals and Black Metal for about five years, but this fresh, gene-spliced sound is starting to coalesce into something mesmerizing. Gagneux stated the project was based on the hypothetical, “what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” Anyone dismissing this as a gimmick hasn’t seen them live. Even in a room as, ahem, suggestable to this sort of blasphemy, having a full theatre shout “a good god is a dead one!” is an unnerving thrill.
They blazed forward like a Black Metal version of Algiers (tour, please), cementing a feeling that Emo’s was seeing a superstar emerge. The mixture sounds is as natural as sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Gagneux’s backing vocalists had enough charisma by themselves to front their own bands, but as a three-headed, shouting hydra, it propelled the music forward. All of them seemed to have been gargling gravel before, giving a dirty gravitas to their unholy demands.
Gagneux was a compelling figure, but he allowed the darkness to envelop him rather than completely command it. George Clark of Deafheaven, on the other hand, cut a Messianic pose the moment he leapt on stage. With the gear decorated with white roses, Deafheaven’s mixture of the beautiful and the poisonous was confirmed. That not so subtle touch gave the whole procession a slight hint of camp, which Deafheaven embellished with relish. Joy was running through the mosh-pit, thanks to Clark. He’s a generational talent frontman. He’s gone from a monolithic figure on stage, growling and allowing the music overwhelm to a rangy, absurdly high energy performer. His charisma brought to mind King Diamond and Rob Halford, but also George Michael, when he occasionally started writhing like a pop star. Even Kerry McCoy fed off Clark’s madness, doing a ‘lil spin as he hit climax chords and throwing in some more traditional, bluesy solos that were absolutely not on the record. Seeing fellow guitarist Shiv Mehra and bassist Chris Johnson join McCoy in a shred circle on stage would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Recent single “Black Brick” was more in line with the classic Black Metal of their Scandinavian forefathers, and Deafheaven brought that brutish speed live. An older set could have been seven songs that last an hour and a half, but they seem to have sped up and truncated their tunes. The interstitial moments of beauty were reserved for quick tuning or water break sidebars before launching back into the blast beats.
If they have accepted they’ll be playing “Sunbather” and “Dream House” every night for the rest of time, they’ve done it bombastically. Deafheaven have always been about the catharsis, but more in the Depeche Mode vein of screaming and crying in equal amounts. Here, even through brutal cuts like “Worthless Animal” there was a constant battering of euphoria to their music and stage presence, pushing it nearly to Power Metal. Clark, despite his eyeballs bulging like Marty Feldman, was having a blast. He briefly stood in the crowd, screaming his head off and when he did a slight circle motion, you better believe the pit was a tornado. Deafheaven finally embracing what their earliest fans thought they could be is a wonderful sight to behold. Forget best Metal band, a few more records and years touring, they’ll be battling for best rock act, regardless of genre.
They closed with “Dream House” which, with that opening wall of guitars and avalanching drums, has already been firmly cemented in that glorious pantheon of rock surrender. But if any group could cap off the night with an onslaught of firmly iconic sounds, it would be Baroness. Their longevity and excellence allows a Baroness show to be one hit after the next, made of individual moments of mosh-pit glory. The piercing opening of “A Horse Called Golgotha” (which they started the set with), the thwamping 6/8 drum rattle of “Isak” or the arena filling shout along of “SHOCK MEEEEEE,” take your pick.
Despite having ostensibly the easiest set up, Baroness were plagued by technical issues for the first few songs. The guitars were mixed too low and a rumbling, over-saturated drone rang out as the frequencies mixed too closely. This caused a few animated discussions between the techies and frontman John Dyer Baizley and uncomfortable glances from the rest of the band. But after a spirited version of “Green Theme,” the mix finally merged. Gina Gleason and Baizley’s guitars were perfectly in sync and Gleason showed off a mighty range of backup vocals, allowing Baizley to stay in his yowling comfort zone. And much like Clark’s mastery of the shrill scream, we’ve got few yellers like Baizley on the planet. He’s become more energetic since the release of Purple leaning into a slight rock star mold but holding all that old punk energy he loves so dearly. His banter was rare, off-kilter and rambling, but in an utterly charming way, like he, 15 years on, still can’t believe he gets paid to do this.
They teased their soon to be released Gold & Grey with new track “Borderlines” which sounds like another pummeling sing-along. It was in the same mold as the singles from last album Purple, and those cuts have proven themselves to be road warriors. Four years on, “Shock Me,” “Morningstar” and “Chlorine & Wine” have matured elegantly on stage, now thoroughly outclassing their studio counterparts. Though they closed with the smash and grab “Take My Bones Away,” Baroness was at their peak drawing out songs to their frenzied climaxes, playing with the dynamics ‘til the entire crowd was twitching from the tension. There was no better example than power ballad “EULA.” “EULA,” even sans the context of Baroness’ hiatus after a torturous recovery from a near fatal bus crash, is one of the finest tearjerkers in metal. Live, they channel all the fear, mourning and dread that rattled the band in the moments and years after. Over seven minutes, Baizley showed off his full range, both emotionally and in his pipes. After the long dirgey opening, hearing the ferocious scream of “If I had a heart/ I’d waste it on you” matched the transcendence and tears of “Dream House” with ragged grace.
A few years ago, for this very website, I reviewed another titanic triple-header: Pallbearer, Converged and At the Gates. This night in Austin had a similar legendary feeling. A young gun ready to step into the limelight sharing the stage with two giants of vastly different styles who bond through emotional weight and sheer technical mastery. If you have even a passing interest in metal, there is no excuse.