Return To Infant Island

Return To Infant Island

Suffering through shitty unpaid gigs doesn’t necessarily build character, but it can at least provide some perspective (or some enduring inside jokes) for bands who make it out of that phase. During Infant Island’s own infancy as a “DIY band of broke motherfuckers,” guitarist Alex Rudenshiold convinced his mates to participate in a University of Mary Washington talent show, eyes on the prize money that could finance their debut album. “It’s humiliating and embarrassing, but at least no one will be there,” he rationalized. This was a reasonable assumption given UMW’s smallish enrollment and marooned location in Fredericksburg, Virginia – almost exactly halfway between Richmond and Washington, DC. Yet, perhaps because of those qualities, a surprising portion of the student body came out to watch Infant Island play a thundering, metalgaze instrumental that failed to impress the judges more than “not one, but two yo-yo acts,” Rudenshiold laughs. “We ended up paying out of pocket. Didn’t win $500, didn’t even place, didn’t pass go.”

Eight years later, a much more receptive audience awaits Obsidian Wreath. From the moment opener “Another Cycle” was released in November, the conversation around Infant Island’s third album has built up from “highly anticipated” to the aura of an inevitable instant classic. It’s not so much a leap from their already impressive past work as a more dynamic and melodic expansion on Beneath and its companion EP Sepulcher, releases that put Infant Island in a common paradox for screamo bands in 2020. That year created an understandably heightened interest in music that provided an outlet for bottled-up aggression, but didn’t allow bands to immediately capitalize on this excitement (indeed, some of Stereogum’s favorite hardcore bands of that year, like Higher Power, Nuvolascura and Record Setter, have yet to release their follow-ups, and Gulch probably never will).

Written during peak-pandemic 2020, Obsidian Wreath was going to sound both apocalyptic and cathartic at any point during the past four years; the latency period has only validated and amplified its doomsaying prophecies, accumulating a gravity that far exceeds the relatively modest 36-minute runtime. But as 2023 dragged on, Infant Island grew impatient trying to find a proper handler for Obsidian Wreath and were on the verge of self-releasing before Rudenshiold messaged Jeremy Bolm, the Touché Amoré frontman and founder of Deathwish, Inc. boutique label Secret Voice. “He’s been supportive for a while now, generally, and he was very generous and just said, ‘Stop, don’t just put it out, I will put it out,'” Rudenshioldd recalls. “It was really like the 11th hour, but he was like, ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t do that to yourself.'”

This hurry-up-and-wait status is familiar for Infant Island: Sepulcher was released a month before Beneath, despite being recorded nearly a year later. Though both drummer Austin O’Rourke and Rudenshiold initially felt ambivalent about dropping Obsidian Wreath before the yearly release schedule kicks up in earnest, it now stands alone as 2024’s first major statement. With the opening piccolo snare hit of “Another Cycle” as the starting gun, Infant Island’s widescreen screamo shapeshifts with intentionality and intensity, with the drumless ambience of “Found Hand” and the acoustic intro of “Amaranthine” feeling every bit as heavy as its seven-minute closer. As Fredericksburg’s massively influential Magic Bullet Records went defunct at the dawn of Infant Island’s career, the band is staunchly intentional about continuing the legacy of groundbreaking Virginia screamo, i.e., pg.99, City Of Caterpillar and Majority Rule, whose Matt Michel once again produces.

But while Virginia is responsible for the sonic spirit of Obsidian Wreath, it’s also the subject matter. The quintet draws inspiration from living in places like Fredericksburg and Culpepper, small cities on the extreme outskirts of ritzy Northern Virginia that aren’t the typical focus for climate change and gentrification concerns; O’Rourke describes them as “trees, military bases, and shitty houses.” Still, Infant Island note how this region of Virginia has managed to inspire a wealth of atmospheric music, from the local shoegaze scenes to the pastoral splendor of Daniel Bachman, whose sister Sarah provided the album artwork.

Much of Obsidian Wreath is concerned with how the landscape has changed in the past two decades alone, both in temperature and infrastructure; Rudenshiold now lives in Irvine, California, a sort of model for the bland, exurban renovation envisioned for their home cities. “There’s this ignorance of the future, juxtaposed against beautiful nature and a lot of people who are really not doing well economically and socially,” O’Rourke adds. “[This area] is stuck in this lionized past while society is not doing things to uplift people.”

Rudenshiold concurs: “There’s an idea – and a not unfounded one – that these are places that are not worth putting your time towards. It’s short-sighted in many ways because you can find people who are politically activated anywhere.” Infant Island are a band of political people, even if their music doesn’t typically address its politics on a literal level. It’s a common challenge for musicians, one that’s only bound to become more pronounced as any number of geopolitical atrocities continue throughout 2024: How can these things be addressed without being thuddingly literal or instantly dated? Not every band writing about climate change can actually get Greta Thunberg to do a five-minute monologue, after all.

In June 2020, Infant Island released a rarities compilation Collections 1 and donated proceeds to bail funds and mutual aid groups supporting the George Floyd protests. Meanwhile, Rudenshiold’s Twitter account provides frequent updates on their work as a union steward for United Academic Workers at University of California at Irvine and experiences trying to integrate similar structures into the music industry during the pandemic. “There was this feeling that we could change how touring or artist rights is financially structured,” he reflects. However, as things slowly “returned to normal,” Rudenshiold began to recognize how the urgency for change is most often shouldered by the artists with the least amount of power. “Within terms of social capital, the less you have to start with in terms of people giving a shit about you, the smaller your voice is in that.”

Infant Island have made it a point to amplify their voice by placing it in a broader artistic context. Following in the communal spirit of Secret Voice’s 2023 scene census Balladeers, Redefined, Obsidian Wreath features contemporary heavy music luminaries like King Josef, gif from god, For Your Health, and Greet Death. Meanwhile, O’Rourke serves as the drummer for Mikau and Rudenshiold’s Mattachine projects, respectively and vividly described by Tom Breihan as “splattery, maximalist DC-based mall-metalcore and “unapologetically queer metallic hardcore” (the duo released a split at the end of 2022). But if Obsidian Wreath somehow doesn’t speak loudly enough on its own, O’Rourke describes its in-progress follow-up as “monster movie gargantuan.” “Whenever they make Godzilla Minus Two or whatever the sequel is, please, seriously, reach out. Infant Island is interested.”

Obsidian Wreath is out 1/12 on Secret Voice.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from Q&A