Overall Score: 8/10 Harsh Vocals: 0/10 Atmosphere: 10/10 Originality : 8/10 Pros: George Clarke's clean vocals are shockingly good, The band have never sounded tighter, Some of the best production in the genre Cons: Slightly overlong, Could do with just a tiny bit more metal
“Nothing changes,” at least according to the opening lyrics to Infinite Granite, sung in a delicate half-whisper by Deafheaven frontman George Clarke. It feels like a knowing wink, when you consider that the album marks the biggest change in sound to date for a band whose relationship to genre has always been polyamorous, to say the least.
In this open marriage to black metal, post rock and shoegaze, Deafheaven are joined by a cadre of contemporaries including Alcest, Wolves In The Throne Room and Oathbreaker. In 2014, the year after Deafheaven’s breakthrough triumph ‘Sunbather’ burst open the floodgates to this sound, Alcest released ‘Shelter’, an unapologetically shoegaze record that seemed designed to soundtrack only the most gorgeous weather. If ‘Sunbather’ reflected white-hot heat piercing through closed eyes, spotted lights dancing in the peripheral like a living kaleidoscope, ‘Shelter’ was the comfort of a palm tree, shielding the naked eye from aggressively beautiful rays. Many expected Deafheaven to follow suit on the follow up to ‘Sunbather’ – but 2015’s ‘New Bermuda’ was anything but this: a frosty, aggressive record that leaned into the icy black metal aesthetic. A hop, skip and a jump later, after 2018’s ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’ and last year’s live album ‘Ten Years Gone’, ‘Infinite Granite’, finally leans into this post-rock maple-seeped, woody atmosphere – and it is a triumph.
That is not to say this is a purely ‘happy’ record: written in the midst of COVID enforced lockdowns, in Clarke’s native California, the sound tumbles between soaring, optimistic guitars and crushing, oppressive mountains of instrumentation that recall My Bloody Valentine’s genre-defining ‘Loveless.’ On track two, ‘In Blur’, via the layered repetition of a simple mourn, Clarke asks a question that may have defined the past year for those living in apartment complexes: ‘what does daylight look like?’ This layering, and the meandering, disinterested vocal approach call to mind The Stone Roses and the wave of emo bands that they eventually influenced far more than anything traditionally ‘extreme.’ It is fifteen minutes into the album before any harsh vocals appear; relegated even then to backing the clean lead. For many, this would be perceived as a cataclysmic mistake, for Deafheaven, it is the only road left that makes sense.
Whilst this is decisively not a pandemic album, the lyrical theme creeps back in consistently; in ‘Lament For Wasps,’ Clarke croons “I lay steady, staring at the ceiling, waking fears of nothing.” The album was conceived during lockdown, and perhaps could never have existed without the ever-increasing paranoia of human contact that has arisen since. Clarke and co have rarely seemed angry at the world lyrically, more put-off and disturbed, – ‘I am my father’s son / I am no-one / I cannot love / it’s in my blood’, from The Pecan Tree comes to mind as their most dejected – here, the poeticism is stepped up yet another notch and, whilst buried in the mix at times, distinctly more audible than the ravenous screams of previous material. You wonder whether Clarke’s confidence in his artistic voice has grown whilst he practised singing clean vocals for this release.
The band, perhaps more than any other in this scene, are an incredibly well oiled machine. From the haunting samples buried in the mix of ‘In Blur’ to the perfect build and release of ‘Great Mass of Colour,’ finally culminating in the first harsh vocals on the record, everything present on ‘Infinite Granite’ feels starkly purposeful, as though it was simply willed into existence by an omnipotent being looking for a more relaxed Deafheaven release.
Deafheaven’s regular producer-in-residence, Jack Shirely, takes a back seat on this record, focussing instead on audio engineering, whilst main production duties are handled by Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Nine Inch Nails, Frank Ocean, Paramore). Meldal-Johnsen helps to redefine the Deafheaven sound in its most expansive form yet; it is perhaps thanks to him that everything clicks together so efficiently. He certainly brings the airy, open approach of later day Frank Ocean and Paramore to the band; every instrument has ample breathing space, every note defined. Despite the stripped down song-lengths (it’s the first Deaheaven release without a single song over ten minutes) the album returns to the cohesion of ‘Roads to Judah’ and ‘Sunbather,’ eschewing the more single-focussed approach of ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love,’ whilst ensuring that the ambient fade outs and extended instrumental passages stand up when taken alone. Track four, ‘Neptune Raining Diamonds’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tim Hecker release – a mean feat for any ostensibly metal band, that shows a real appreciation and understanding of the ambient form.
As track six, Villain, crescendos the weight of each instrument is as powerful as anything on ‘New Bermuda’, in an entirely different way. The song features another vocal hook that wouldn’t be out of place in an indie club, filtered through Clark’s embattled vocals and delivered over soaring reverb drenched guitar, as Daniel Tracy’s drum fills continue to work surprising and engaging paths through the album, a single outlier in that there are few moments when he chooses not to hit the pads as hard as possible.
This is a record that must be heard in full. Those who may have been disappointed with the singles, but love the band’s previous output must put the hour aside to listen in full. If you do that and still don’t love the new direction? Fair enough. But to reject this offering on the singles alone is to reject a gourmet meal for distaste of the table’s bread.
The new Deafheaven album, Infinite Granite, is out now on Sargent House.