Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Deafheaven Infinite Granite

Sargent House
2021
Sargent House
2021

Friends, please, have a seat.

Are you sitting? Are you ready? Good! Because we’re about to talk about the new Deafheaven album. And … well, we have a lot to talk about.

I won’t lie, both because I believe myself to be a fundamentally good man and also there may be few scattered comments here and there to contradict me, so let me be frank: I expected this album, Infinite Granite, to suck.

This was an opinion derived from a smattering of different details: the first two singles (“Great Mass Of Color” and “The Gnashing”) released in advance of Infinite Granite; my deep and perhaps insane love for Deafheaven’s past output; my immediate disappointment hearing frontman George Clarke’s vocal pivot from passionate howl to “clean” singing. I was a little bored with the new tunes. I was unmoved by the prospect of more. I was ambivalent. I was confident in my ambivalence.

So I had it all planned out in my head, this review. I thought I was gonna talk about how Clarke’s voice wasn’t up to the task to which it had been assigned, and about how lead guitarist Kerry McCoy had abandoned his own gifts as both composer and shredder, and about how rhythm guitarist Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson, and drummer Daniel Tracy were basically Gem Archer, Andy Bell, and Alan White, and this was Deafheaven’s Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (not a compliment), and we’d all point and laugh or feel sad or something. Haha. Boohoo. Blah. Etc.

But then … well, friends, then I actually listened to Infinite Granite. And then I had to scratch all that.

***

We don’t have time for a ton of backstory, so I’ll try to make this brief:

Infinite Granite is Deafheaven’s fifth LP. Previously: 1. Roads To Judah. 2. Sunbather. 3. New Bermuda. 4. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love.

Those first four LPs sounded enough like black metal that Deafheaven were often called a black metal band. This designation, however, was (and continues to be) inaccurate and unhelpful. If you consider, say, Gorgoroth’s first three albums to be the archetype of second-wave black metal, then Deafheaven have never played black metal. Instead, they play blackgaze, i.e., black metal x shoegaze, a hybrid subgenre whose parameters are so indistinct, they could almost literally land anywhere or nowhere. And because it has a stupid name and falls outside the perimeters of both “real” metal and “serious” music, blackgaze is often diminished and dismissed in a way that has allowed the style to grow unchecked. Because it has no borders, it can have no border patrols. So Clarke is now singing instead of screaming? So what? I hear more and more bands on Bandcamp using the blackgaze tag whose music features primarily if not only clean vocals. I also hear more and more bands who sound literally exactly the way Deafheaven used to sound. (Receipts? Here: Uno. Dos. Tres. Cuatro. Cinco. All those songs are awesome, btw. Buy ’em. Make a playlist.) And when I’m lucky, I hear some bands that take it to whole new levels entirely. And beyond.

Bottom line is, I hear a lot of blackgaze bands, because I follow this stuff with a probably unhealthy intensity, and I can confidently tell you that Deafheaven serve as a gravitational force at the center of this style. I can also tell you that they can’t turn around or stand still, not now, because everything around them is moving forward, outward, and upward. And finally, I can tell you that Infinite Granite is very much a blackgaze album. But is it “metal”? Friends, it doesn’t sound like Iron Maiden! I’ve heard people say it sounds like Catherine Wheel and Alcest and AFI and Nothing and Morrissey and Failure and Turnover and all this other stuff. And every time I hear any of those comparisons, I want to reply that, no, it actually doesn’t sound like those bands for these reasons. And I’m right, of course. But you know what? Infinite Granite actually does sound like all those bands. It literally sounds like all of them. And others! I hear Adorable and Suede and Ride and the Stone Roses …

Here’s the thing, though: When you simultaneously synthesize or echo the sounds of a dozen or whatever disparate bands, you don’t actually sound like any of them. More to the point, do you know who Infinite Granite really sounds like, much more so than any of those bands mentioned above?

Deafheaven.

I’m not being cute. If Infinite Granite weren’t by Deafheaven, you’d listen to it once and say, “This band is just blatantly ripping off Deafheaven. Except for the vocals.”

***

Deafheaven have been a five-piece for a while now, but the band is inherently two guys: George Clarke and Kerry McCoy. I mean, by this point, maybe drummer Daniel Tracy is a full member (he absolutely should be, but it’s easy for me to say that, because it’s not my equity getting divvied up), but even if he were, it wouldn’t make him a founding member. Maybe he gets a vote — maybe all those other guys do — but at the end of the day, Clarke and McCoy make the calls.

And I always wonder what must have happened behind the scenes of this sorta stuff. When you’re Deafheaven, and you’re making the quite honestly monumental — and quite frankly very risky — decision to switch from screaming to singing clean … how does that come about? Physical necessity? Artistic development? Commercial ambition? Did one person push back against the other, or was it a jointly made decision? Did it come about overnight, or did it evolve over time? It doesn’t matter. I’m just curious to know the details of private conversations. Because in this case, there absolutely were conversations. This represents a massive change. Does it work? That depends, I guess. Here’s how it worked for me:

My first thought, when I first heard “Great Mass Of Color”: Woof. This guy can’t actually sing at all. No no no. Nope.

Then, after a bit more exposure, I thought: Well, he can sing a little bit, but he has virtually no range, virtually no identity, and virtually no ability to convey any sort of emotion beyond “melancholy.”

Then, after I’d listened to the album, I dunno, three, four times? I thought: WHAT THE FUCK MORE DO YOU GREEDY, SELFISH, AWFUL PEOPLE EVEN WANT FROM A SINGER?!

Really, Clarke’s singing serves these songs in much the same way his screaming did the old ones: His voice is an accent, a component, an instrument. His identity as a singer, then, might feel a little muted at first, but it comes through with crystal clarity once you’ve become acclimated. His range … like, the guy’s not gonna be mistaken for Pavarotti anytime soon, but he’s a singer, no question. He absolutely glides through these songs, effortlessly and gracefully; he’s a thoroughly confident and mesmerizing presence. As for the emotion he conveys, I mean, blackgaze may not be purely melancholy music, but it is fundamentally melancholy music, and Clarke’s voice is rich with the stuff. It’s perfect. It works perfectly here.

Everything works perfectly here. Like, perfectly. These are clearly the tightest and most deliberately constructed songs ever written by Deafheaven; the progressions and patterns rise, fall, and rise anew as steadily and naturally as the ocean tides. It’s a glowing, sad, beautiful album. But it’s so fucking powerful, too. It’s physically powerful. These dudes are a goddamn machine. They are a force.

Of course, there’s no question that Infinite Granite is Deafheaven’s “lightest” record by several dozen orders of magnitude, but once you’ve realized that’s totally irrelevant, you notice how agile Deafheaven are without additional weight, how deftly they play with that light. I want to call it a breezy album, but that somehow makes it feel inconsequential, despite the fact that this world offers few feelings quite so sublime as a breeze. So instead I’ll say:

It feels like you’re constantly waking from a wonderful dream, trying to reconnect with reality while also trying to remember where you were before. It feels like an entire summer when you’re nine years old. I dunno, man. I mean, these are just words. When you listen, you’ll feel what you feel.

I’m not sure if the full extent of those feelings, the possibility of those feelings, is made evident by the now-three singles released in advance of the LP. I’m not sure you hear any of what’s really there, to be honest. After listening to Infinite Granite a couple times, I found myself thinking of Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks Of God — one of my very favorite albums of 2021 so far — another LP whose singles seemed … fine, but they completely failed to prepare the listener for the experience provided by the full-length. I was thinking of something MO frontman/composer Andy Hull said about that:

It’s best served as a whole thing. The album’s the song.

I think that’s 100% true of Million Masks, and it’s equally true of Infinite Granite. If I had to pick highlights here, I’d point to the two songs that bookend the album. Opener “Shellstar” is a waterfall, a kaleidoscope, a slowly expanding spiral of loops that crash over you like waves and draw you further in like a riptide. As for closer “Mombasa,” let’s circle back to that one. My picking out these songs as highlights, though, is almost like my saying the two best chapters of a book are its first and last. It might be true on some level, but these things don’t function independently of one another. The power comes from the tension connecting those two poles. And usually, the writing is pretty great from beginning to end. Like it is here.

I’m not just saying that. I have now listened to Infinite Granite, I dunno, a hundred times? And of those hundred-ish listens, I have never once skipped ahead to hear one song instead of another. Every time: I press play, I listen from track 1, and when track 9 is over, I press stop. Or play, again.

Lemme take you back, real quick, to my first listen: By the time I was two songs in, I forgot who I was listening to. Two full play-throughs later, I forgot what Deafheaven used to sound like. Or what they’re supposed to sound like. Because this is what they sound like.

***

So, “Mombasa.”

The first time I listened to Infinite Granite, I didn’t realize “Neptune Raining Diamonds” foreshadowed “Mombasa,” because … well, how would I have known? That’s kinda how foreshadowing works. Anyway, “Neptune” is the gentlest and quietest song on Infinite Granite: a three-minute instrumental ambient passage whose lilting melody returns in Clarke’s vocal line during the verse of “Mombasa.”

And like “Neptune,” “Mombasa” too is gentle and quiet. It opens with about half a minute of near-silence … and then, a finger-picked acoustic guitar from which the rest of the music slowly rises. Clarke’s vocal has a dolorous, drugged quality. It is, in its totality, a delicate piece of music. It glimmers and chimes, it sighs and swoons, it shuffles and swirls, it features a flute … it’s really just a perfectly lovely conclusion to this perfectly lovely ride. It relaxes you. It lulls you. It recedes to nearly nothing at all. And then?

It goes.

ALL.

OUT.

WAR.

The first time I heard the fucking thing, I nearly fell over. I was standing up — I was walking, in fact, listening to the album on headphones, just floating along with the music — and it hit me so hard I had to stop in my tracks. It fucking froze me. It filled me up. For the final three minutes of Infinite Granite, Deafheaven just blow the doors off; they lay waste to everything within a thousand-mile radius. They descend and destroy with a goddamn vengeance. They bring fire and burn everything to the ground. This comes out of absolutely nowhere. This is what was waiting for you. It will blow you away. It blows me away.

I don’t know how they fucking did it, man. I’m telling you, you can listen to the album a hundred times (give or take) and that piece will still obliterate you. Just, like, structurally, philosophically, logically … it is a crazy fucking choice. It’s a crazy choice! It boggles my mind to think about it, but I don’t like to think about it, because I love just listening to it. I love feeling it. And I don’t think you could actually feel it at all if you just skipped to “Mombasa,” and skipped forward five minutes, and listened to that climax. Because then, it wouldn’t be a climax. The album’s the song. To get to the end, you start at the beginning. And the end of “Mombasa” is truly THE END.

And then … you start at the beginning again.

I do, anyway. Deafheaven hold a place in my heart like few other bands, so you could say I’m biased, but I promise, I’m not being an easy grader here. If anything, I hold Deafheaven to an unreasonably high standard. If Infinite Granite sucked, I promise, I would be the first to tell you it sucked. I was ready to do just that! I expected it to suck. I expected to tell you all about how bad it sucked. I expected to hate Infinite Granite. But friends, that didn’t happen. The opposite happened. Friends, I love it.

Infinite Granite is out 8/20 on Sargent House.

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