A line of icy patrons wormed down SE Morrison Street and around the corner against the concrete facade of Holocene on a near-freezing evening. Just across the street beneath the neon bulbs of Sassy's strip bar, members of Usnea and Lesbian were getting photos taken between plumes of steamy breath while, it's assumed, the members of Deafheaven were practicing ancient Chinatown black magic or chewing on glass somewhere.
This being the heaviest edition yet of the Red Bull Sound Select series of recession-priced live shows for Portland, these hyperboles seemed warranted. Three bands of progressive metal pedigree―each one subtly different than the next―on the same bill at Holocene, a venue mostly treasured by electro-freaks and dancehouse hipsters. Would the bottom drop out of the place? Would the be-bearded flocks of SE Portland come rushing to its warehouseian innards to chug Red Bull drinks? It was a lot to think about while waiting outside in line for 30 to 45 minutes to get in.
Nathan Carson―of XRAY.fm's Heavy Metal Sewing Circle and lots of brutal metal bands in Portland (like Witch Mountain)―spun an eclectic mix of classic heavy rock and doomier fare while patrons filed in. They didn't have to wait all that long before Portland's Usnea sauntered onstage to a packed room. The quartet's sophomore album, Random Acts of Cosmic Violence, was released via metal monolith Relapse Records in November―a four-song epic splurge of funeral doom and progressive sludge that is about as settling as riding out the rolls of an earthquake.
It was something of a comeback performance for Usnea if you take into consideration the last time they were booked by PDX Pop Now!―the curator of the evening's bill―the band somewhat infamously blew the fuses at AudioCinema in the first few minutes of their first song during this past summer's free festival. It's easy to see why that legendary moment was able to happen, from an energy standpoint. Usnea is impossibly loud, reveling in the minimalist ideals of repetitive, slow dirges. The result is trancelike on tunes like “Lying in Ruin,” their new album's opener―a 12-plus-minute fuselage of fury. It's bleak stuff, and the tandem vocals of Justin Cory (guitars, vocals) and Joel Williams (bass, vocals) provide flanked miasmas of blackened hell-ride chaos.
As is customary considering the length of their songs, Usnea unveiled just three tunes and vacated the stage to Seattle's Lesbian. Emerging with a reputation for embodying the more traditional progressive metal band, Lesbian erupted into a fragmented set of doomy despair, albeit with a more pronounced affinity for shredding, and for odd time signatures and extended solos and jams. To wit, their 2013 release through Translation Loss Records, Forestelevision (below), consists of one song that twists and turns and dies and cries and howls and writhes for over 44 minutes straight. Probably somewhat smartly, the band did decide to forego one long, brooding tune in favor of vignettes of tunes that ran the gamut of metal, and which featured a healthy injection of hair whips from the Gandalfian guitar-bass duo of Daniel Joseph La Rochelle and Dorando Peter Hodous, respectively.
After doing a quick lap around the perimeter of the crowd―ostensibly to muster up the teeming crowd's energy after the sets of Usnea and Lesbian, San Francisco's Deafheaven hopped onstage. Vocalist George Clarke came to the stage last, immediately gesturing to those in the frontlines of the crowd to move forward to the lip of the stage. What followed was an explosion of noise from the initial chords of “Dream House,” the opening track from their critically lauded 2013 LP Sunbather. Clarke's possessed demeanor, high-pitched shrieks and posturing prompted spirit fingers from the devoted frontliners, raised eyebrows from those bringing up the rear of the venue, and generally whipped everyone's freezing asses into a frenzy. Deafheaven's acclaim stems from the immediacy of a heretofore unthought-of hybrid of black metal, shoegaze and progressive metal, creating sonic bridges of punishing noise that emerged somehow eerily beautiful amidst the bedlam.
This bookend to an evening of ritualistic heavy music felt cathartic, and offered the obvious endpoint of the bridging between slow-burn openers Usnea and Lesbian. Deafheaven, as obfuscated and sinister as they allowed themselves to come off during the downright mind-bogglingly great performance of “Sunbather” (watch it performed live at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival below), seemed almost haloed in their efforts―an observation certain to be decried by those for whom the tenets of black metal are infallible and rigid. The fact remained, though, that with every Tourette tic Clarke became enraptured by, and with every counter-rhythm employed by the phalanx of melodies and counter-melodies and syncopated brilliance of the Deafheaven ensemble, that elusive unity of the old hardcore salad days peaked out more and more, and what appeared to be a communal experience took shape.It was a set like this from Deafheaven that makes you remember how great it is going to shows at all.