Were they less restlessly creative, Deafheaven’s 2013 breakout, Sunbather, might have defined the band’s legacy. But throughout a gradual stylistic evolution, and beyond the provocations of their early days—the pink album artwork, the trendy haircuts, the hawking of the Sunbather font—an unwavering commitment to catharsis kept their music vital and thrilling. Deafheaven’s sweeping crescendos and relentless intensity have encouraged the kind of emotional bloodletting that attracts listeners from all across the musical spectrum, even ones who aren’t usually fans of black metal.
The elevator pitch for Infinite Granite, the band’s fifth album, is “Deafheaven minus the screaming and blast beats.” There’s no disputing that it’s their most subdued, least aggressive work by far, but that description also undersells how many gentler moments exist throughout Deafheaven’s discography, as well as how much clean singing there’s been on their last two records. Infinite Granite may push the band’s harshest elements to the margins, but its most striking departure is its abandonment of dynamic buildups and climaxes. Since Sunbather, the band’s music has been a linear, side-scrolling video-game landscape of cliffs and valleys; now it’s the famous Windows XP background of hi-res rolling hills with unknown scale but finite boundaries. Deafheaven are capable of gorgeous shoegaze, dream pop, and post-rock tapestries, but their replications of those styles begin to lose their emotional resonance when not interwoven with heavier fare.
As Infinite Granite progresses, it’s hard to tell if the songs are getting weaker or if it’s just your third or fourth time running up the same hill. Almost every track begins with ambient swirls of synth or guitar effects, which are soon paired with plaintive guitar strums and hi-hat-driven drum patterns. Once the full band kicks in, they’ll either ride it out for the song’s full runtime or select one of three options for transitions: blasting off on the back of a big Slowdive/My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze riff, slowing down into a slightly heavier half-time breakdown, or granting us a brief glimpse of their black-metal side at the very end of the song, as a treat.
Deafheaven’s previous albums are hardly hyperpop-style mashups of a million different ideas—and indeed, by the mid-song breakdown in 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love closer “Worthless Animal,” it may feel like you’ve heard slight variations of the same Daniel Tracy drumbeat a dozen times—but this is the first time the usually innovative band has felt like it’s playing by a set of predetermined rules. Infinite Granite’s update to a well-defined sound may seem like a brave attempt to escape whatever container that Deafheaven, their fans, and their critics have built for the band, but ironically, they haven’t sounded this boxed in since 2011’s Roads to Judah.
Still, within those limits, they do some impressive things. Frontman George Clarke’s poetic writing, now intelligible without the help of a lyric sheet, holds up under the spotlight, and his longstanding desire to deliver singalong hooks comes to fruition on the full-throated choruses of songs like “Shellstar” and “Lament for Wasps.” Guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra take the effort they once put into composing heart-wrenching solos and refocus it on laser-precision tonality, each new riff a microcosm of subtle shifts between reverb, chorus, and fuzz effects. Tracy may take more of a back seat than usual, but his thunderous fills telegraph where the rest of the band is headed, providing the spark for powerful moments at the tail ends of “Great Mass of Color” and “Villain.” The empty space where the screams, solos, and blast beats used to be is filled marvelously by bassist Chris Johnson, who, by virtue of both the softer style of music and fuller production, gets more space to roam than ever before.
Just as integral to Infinite Granite’s shift in sound is the presence of producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who, in addition to his work for rock heavy-hitters like M83, Paramore, and Jimmy Eat World, is a former member of Beck and Nine Inch Nails’ touring bands. This is the first Deafheaven album that’s not produced by Jack Shirley (though he’s still on board as engineer), and the difference between Shirley’s hands-off ethos and Meldal-Johnsen’s more involved approach is apparent. Eliminating blast beats is always going to allow for a wider range of frequencies—that constant pounding usually requires producers to roll back the bass levels or risk a muddled low end—but Infinite Granite sounds lush in a way that even the quietest moments on Deafheaven’s previous albums never have. Part of that’s all the layering of multi-tracks and effects, and part of it’s simply access to fancier gear—check McCoy and Mehra drooling over Meldal-Johnsen’s array of studio goodies in a recent Guitar World interview.
The idea here, as the band has said, was to set aside Deafheaven’s customary dramatic compositional dynamics in favor of subtler textural shifts achieved via the recording process itself. While that may delight audiophiles, an immersive headphones listen is only ever as powerful as the performance that drives it. On Infinite Granite, that performance is always skillful but rarely—aside from perfectly paced closer “Mombasa”—powerful in the ways Deafheaven have been in the past. If Infinite Granite was a debut by a band with no backstory, it’d be impressive as hell. But knowing Deafheaven’s singular ability to pull off thrilling highwire acts, their latest subversion of expectations feel less like a bold statement and more like a predictable move to gentler pastures.
Buy: Rough Trade
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