The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Infinite Granite Rob Hakimian , August 23rd, 2021 08:41

Don't be fooled by the subtler shifts in the band's fifth album - they are still capable of reaching intense heights, says Rob Hakiman

People have been shit-talking Infinite Granite for months. Ever since the lead single, 'Great Mass of Color', arrived in early June, knives have been out for Deafheaven, for ‘selling out’, for ‘going soft’, for focusing on more 'accessible' sounds – any and all of these reasons. See, George Clarke is no longer rasping and screaming his way through their songs – he’s actually singing. Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra’s guitar bluster has become a crystalline wind on a stormy night, occasionally switching their axes for synths.The rhythm section of drummer Daniel Tracy and bassist Christopher Johnson no longer sound like a lumpen anchor desperately tying it all to the ground, they’re now filled with melodicism.

Yet, they still sound like nobody but Deafheaven. While some will say Infinite Granite is an inversion – perhaps a betrayal – of the ‘black metal’ sound they made their name in, the fact is, Deafheaven never placed that tag on themselves. What’s more, if anyone’s surprised by this next step, they clearly haven't been paying attention. Deafheaven have always coveted beauty just as much as brutality in their music, and their previous album, 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, already featured several songs where they put aside the excoriating elements and just allowed themselves to breathe.

It's certainly not that much of a surprise to Deafheaven themselves that they've gone this way. Such is the clarity of their vision, they even hired a new producer to help them achieve it, relegating usual ally Jack Shirley to engineer so that they could work with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, whose credits include Wolf Alice, M83 and Paramore. They evidently wanted to attain that sky-scouring epicness while introducing a new level of approachability, and in that they have succeeded. Infinite Granite won’t be filling up the airwaves however, even a spin on BBC 6 Music in the afternoon seems a stretch because, while Deafheaven may not be as vicious as before, they sure as hell are still loud – and intense.

That said, the intensity might not be evident from the opening track 'Shellstar' – a baptism by pure, refreshing ice water for those coming into this record fearing for the loss of the grand old Deafheaven of yore. The band clearly give no shits though, and 'Shellstar' sets out their intentions in no uncertain terms; a wan synth atmosphere prefacing sprightly, popping drums and glistening, skating guitar lines – and, of course, there’s Clarke’s voice, sweetly singing about "a sublime wander through summer fire".

His voice, and in particular his words, are bound to draw a lot of criticism now that they’re clearly audible in the mix. Many might find his brand of poetry flowery or even juvenile, as he sings of visual feelings like "frigid bedroom capture in a Spring without desire" or more directly asks questions like "can I accept I’m real?" It’ll be a personal choice whether to appreciate or scoff, but there is a delicacy and ephemeral beauty to them that matches the shimmering sounds all around, while the vocal melodies work in the same way as his voice always used to – the glinting tip of the axe that is the Deafheaven sound. When Clarke's voice is layered into harmonies and echoing backing vocals, as on the glistening ‘In Blur’ or vocoded to pure texture on 'Villain', the result is simply gorgeous.

Even more exciting is the work of drummer Daniel Tracey. While he has always been a sensational percussionist, his more technically impressive moments often came in tandem with blasts of noise, meaning they were heard simply as one element of the cyclone. Now, as the guitars spread wide, they leave his avenue clear to be the pounding, pulverising heart of the sound – there is a beautiful rhythmic intelligence to the way he plays. Just listen to the way he guides us through album centrepiece 'Lament For Wasps', where the guitars remain fairly anonymous, skirting beautifully around the edges while the precision percussion is atmospheric in the early stages, energetic in transition, splashy and bright as they enter the starry mid-section, then detonate his impressive double bass drumming to add distant thunder to the plunging finale.

The drumming is also crucial to the real thing that has always made Deafheaven so vital: the dynamics. Their ability to build up 100-tonne sounds then frictionlessly pivot into a hair-raising moment of pure exhilaration is still intact, even if they’re only working with half the velocity of their previous output. They use this relative lightness for nimbler switches of momentum, as on 'Great Mass of Color’=' where they glide through verses then shift into an aural swan-dive for the choruses. They invert this on 'The Gnashing', kicking off with ferocious, buzz-saw guitar, only to crack open and reveal an ascendant, euphoric chorus. This is before they revert back to one of their favoured tricks of pulling back to quiet, then launching a dirty bomb of sheer furious elegance to finish, McCoy providing the only true guitar solo on the record with some white hot playing.

In fact, all this relative holding back on the volume, double bass drumming and screaming means that when they do utilise those old favourite tools, they’re even more effective. The tail end of 'Great Mass of Color' is the first example, Deafheaven lulling us with their sublime shoegaze, only for the drums to lead the charge as they bubble out of the blue into a volcanic eruption in the finale, Clarke’s rasp arcing across it like a flaming ball of rock. 'Villain' finds them coasting weightlessly for the majority, Clarke’s wordless falsetto fitting naturally amid the frosty beauty, until they reach a point of ambience that telegraphs the oncoming thunderblast from miles away – and once again it’s delight to hear the singer returning to his rasp, which feels especially vicious.

Best of all is the titanic finale to the album, 'Mombasa', which begins with acoustic guitar and Clarke singing of being "stranded naked on the sandbar". They waft their way along in this mode for a while, introducing some glimmering electronics like moonlight on water, blissfully taking their time. After five minutes of this lullaby, 'Mombasa' explodes out of nowhere and all your favourite Deafheaven sounds are back: guitars grinding like tectonic plates playing a symphony, Clarke screaming like his lungs are filled with wasps, Tracey’s double bass drumming and impossibly fast stick work hurtling along underneath.

With that, they depart, leaving a scorching burn across your mind in their wake. It’s the perfect way to underline and emphasise the fact that Deafheaven are still Deafheaven, their grand spectrum of colours and emotions still firmly intact – and they can use them to paint as vividly as ever. While perhaps not as original or unpredictable as their previous monoliths, Infinite Granite is undoubtedly another epic, engrossing and engulfing piece.