After setting the world ablaze with album after album laced with controversy, the San Francisco metalgazers make yet another hairpin turn.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
Despite forming in 2010, the Deafheaven story in the public consciousness actually began on June 11th, 2013. On that day, the group released their sophomore record, Sunbather, to extreme reactions on both sides of the musical spectrum. On one hand, major outlets like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and NPR went gaga over the album and its accessible sound for non metal fans. On the other, you had the scruffy “trve kvlt” neckbeard types who spank their monkey to every raw black metal demo and immediately lambasted George Clarke, Kerry McCoy, and Daniel Tracy for being “hipster garbage” and “not metal”, and those were the NICE insults. The trio’s blending of US black metal, shoegaze, dream pop, screamo, post hardcore, and even usage of ambient field recordings was something that caught on fast with people with either persuasion, leading to extreme derision or adulation.
I remember the day Sunbather entered my life very fondly. I won’t go into too much detail simply because that is an album that I wish I could go into more depth about. Suffice to say, the album was a game changer for many, including myself, in discovering new sounds outside of the sphere of metal. As far as I’m aware when the band dropped New Bermuda in 2015, most of the haters were silenced. This was Deafheaven at their most aggressive. I mean hell, it even featured some guitar chugging that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Slayer record. The band would continue to tour and garner both hate and admiration for their adventurous sound until in 2018 when they released another game changer, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. While most found this album to be a new artistic peak for the group, it took me up until a few months ago to really appreciate the album in its entirety. The record featured more odd ambient shifts as well as an increased influence from Britpop that comprised the album's diverse sound.
This brings us into the world that is continually ravaged by COVID-19 and Deafheaven really decided to mess with us once again on Infinite Granite. Instead of what you’d come to expect from the band on past efforts, what we are greeted with is much more subdued and mellow. In short, the group have now gone full Slowdive meets the first Alcest record, Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007). In even shorter terms, it's a slightly heavier form of shoegaze, which is nothing new in Deafheaven‘s repertoire. They implemented it masterfully on Sunbather and continued to use it frequently on subsequent releases, but like all great artists must do, they've once again taken a sonic shift to focus more heavily on the elements of this very under appreciated alternative rock genre while toning down most of their metal influence.
Opener Shellstar sounds like a mix of early My Bloody Valentine mixed with some Tangerine Dream during its opening, providing very bright and shimmering chords courtesy of guitarists Shiv Mehra and Kerry McCoy. Then, George Clarke comes in, not with a roar, but with a measured yet controlled vocal performance. I would almost compare it to Robert Smith or even Dave Gahan if we really want to stretch the envelope. Those expecting more of a metal centric effort after an album like OCHL are going to be sadly mistaken. The track is very ethereal, in that it almost sounds like it could’ve been released on the 4AD label in the early to mid 90’s. Following track, In Blur, has more of that jangle pop flavor one could expect from a more vintage band yet the group make it work wonders throughout the song’s five and a half minute runtime. There are even parts of Clarke’s vocal performance that sound like Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes around the band’s One Second (1997) and Host (1999) era. Clarke’s crooning is something I didn’t necessarily anticipate and also something I didn’t realize I needed in my life. The bass and drum work on the track is symbiotic to an infectious degree as Daniel Tracy and Chris Johnson keep the low end present and with a pulse.
First single Great Mass of Color is where I feel many of the band’s longtime fans started to feel alienated. I mean, even I was a little confused when I first heard the track. The opening almost sounds like Politik from Coldplay’s 2002 album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. This was a smart decision on the band’s part to release this track as the first single so as to ease everyone into the rest of the record ahead. The quiet bass solo break is a very welcome nod to bands like Curve and Ride while Clarke’s near angelic vocals float like clouds above the whirling six string hurricane below. It's dreamy yet also filled with melancholy, providing hope for what’s to come. It’s also interesting because the song’s final minute features one of the only screams and one of the heaviest instrumental passages on the album so as to say, “Here’s where we were, but here we are now.”
The quick Neptune Raining Diamonds is a gorgeous chillwave piece that may not rank up there with shorter Deafheaven tracks, but serves as an interesting artistic expression. Lament for Wasps is the second longest track on the album that brings in some math rock drumming from Tracy while still staying firmly planted in the schools of Slowdive/MBV. The track even has more of an American Football kind of vibe, especially from Clarke’s longing vocal work. A signature Kerry McCoy arrives like a welcome friend in the midst of the song’s framework and exits just as quickly, not long enough to linger. It’s also no secret that group may have also taken some influence from the group Amesoeurs, Neige’s pre-Alcest band, which would help with the development of blackgaze in the future.
Villain begins with interesting trip hop meets Yellow & Green (2012) era Baroness to lead into a very emotive performance from Clarke. The comparisons to Nick Holmes return in Clarke’s pronunciation of certain words that work like a charm and the track also features some diabolical whispers that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a previous Deafheaven LP. Clarke then effortlessly dives back into his black metal rasp to finish out the song on an extremely triumphant note. Whirling noise opens The Gnashing before a VERY blackgaze inspired passage comes in to really pound your face in. That metal muscle is soon discarded again in favor of that math rock/shoegaze goodness, latering breaking to momentary stillness before again unleashing the goods. Everything gets heightened before the track closes on whirling guitars and dream pop chords. Math rock drumming and gaze guitars then welcome you on Other Language, a song who’s instrumental could’ve slotted its way onto Sunbather if it had screamed vocals on it instead of its otherwise breathy shoegaze ones. The track also has slight discordant echoes of Agalloch’s Black Lake Nidstang in the way certain chords are strummed, giving off a very cinematic feeling to the song. Towards the end, wall of sound guitars roar in over Clarke’s delivery like an oppressive tsunami before ending on yet another glimmering guitar outro.
Closing track Mombasa begins with a crackling fire and warm acoustics before clean tone guitars range in to add some weight to the track. If Deafheaven had waited to whip out their Midwest emo influences until now, they picked the right time to do so. The track has electronic glimmers whilst staying firmly planted in dream pop atmosphere with hints of emo and the album’s prevalent shoegaze sound. All that ends when the five and a half minute mark hits and the band go full Immortal meets Sonic Youth to really bring the entire album full circle with ripping drums and howling vocals from George. A guitar solo cuts through before the album closes on this chilling yet hopeful note, putting a cap on another historic chapter for a truly historic band.
While Infinite Granite positions Deafheaven as a new vanguard for the heavier end of shoegaze, I don’t think most fans should jump ship quickly. We’ve seen transformations like this before, even within this genre. When Alcest released Shelter in 2014, many of the group’s fans scattered like roaches being brought to light. Many hated that record because of its departure from the previous black metal influenced records, but now the record is being hailed as one of the best written full-lengths in Neige’s catalogue. Deafheaven are in the exact same school of thought at this moment. I don’t think the band will forever abandon metal, but this is definitely an exercise and flexing of their artistic muscle that they hadn’t really gotten into before. Will this bring a lot of the r/mucore nerds into the band’s fanbase and end up pissing off the old heads? Possibly, but this magnetic affect will undoubtedly be like what Sunbather did almost a decade ago and that’s expose people who never would’ve given metal a chance to listen and experiment for themselves as to what they like and find joy in. With this new album, Deafheaven have opened the doors for more music lovers to indulge in the realm of metal and vice versa with one of their most mellow and yet deeply heartfelt records in recent memory. Funny how that works isn’t it?
Infinite Granite is available now via Sargent House. Order your copy HERE.