Deafheaven – Infinite Granite [2021]

From the moment Sunbather blasted Deafheaven into…whatever counts as the mainstream for this kind of music, they’ve been polarizing. Not only do metal fans either love them or revile them, the music itself often operates within very disparate styles. They’ve never had much middle ground, after all: they’re either arresting in their beautiful washes of shoegaze guitars and blissed out tremolo textures, or they’re demolishing everything in their path through siren-esque shrieks and pummeling blast beats. They borrow as much from My Bloody Valentine as they do Mayhem, but they’ve also never shied away from evolution either. New Bermuda breathed closer to metalcore and hardcore than shoegaze, and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love was a varied – if sometimes a bit confused collection – of textures, spoken word, metal, alt rock, and morbid atmosphere. But no matter what they were doing, Deafheaven never quite settled into one lane, as they seemed content to operate in the extreme ends of whatever they were exploring. And for as exciting as that tendency towards the extremes made their music, their last album showed signs that maybe they were ready for a big change, but where that change would bring them was anyone’s guess.

Well, where they’ve gone next is that fabled middle ground. Infinite Granite builds upon the promise of Sunbather’s love of shoegaze and texture and retools the band’s entire sound towards that end. That by itself feels like an evolution that was an inevitability for them, but that’s not what makes this album such a surprise. Instead of George Clarke’s paint-peeling missives, he’s instead shifted gears to almost entirely clean vocals. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve long since wanted a bit more variety in his vocal style. But considering just how harsh his vocals are – and how strained they were starting to sound – I wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull off clean singing. I’ve been happily proven wrong, however, because George’s vocals here have a shockingly delicate, soft spoken quality to them. And while he doesn’t have a huge range, he does has great control of what he does have, using it to lend these songs a hypnotic and rhythmic edge. His vocal lines sound as if he was able to transfer the patterns he’d normally use for his screamed vocals into sung ones instead, giving his cadences a unique stutter/stop edge that contrasts perfectly against the hazier, dream-like music that envelops him like a warm blanket.

Much like the huge step George has taken with his vocals, the rest of the band has taken big steps instrumentally as well. While they’ve always had those shoegaze influences as a core part of their sound, it still felt more like they were flirting with the style rather than fully committing to it. On Infinite Granite, though, they’ve found a way to stretch those influences far enough to carry entire songs, and create a bed of lush, vibrant music on every track. So much of this album pushes and pulls with a constant subtle tension, tension that is far removed from the more obvious and foot stomping attack in their metal-centric work. Yet, there’s still plenty to be recognized as distinctly Deafheaven in the way they utilize cathartic build ups and climaxes, black metal-inspired tremolo guitars, and that thick wall of sound that made their previous records so transfixing. It’s impressive how they’ve managed to retain so much of the intensity from their heavier work on such intimate, shy, and emotional compositions. And while it would be easy for a metal band to underpin these delicate tracks with their former aggression and fire, or push them unnecessarily towards big finishes just to take a half-measure towards pleasing fans of the older stuff, Deafheaven excellently walks the line of reserving those powerful finishes for the moments when they count most, making the blistering finishes of Villain and Mombasa so hard hitting when they finally do break out the screams.

However, for as much as I love the new turn Deafheaven has taken here, there’s still a few wrinkles to be ironed out if they’re to continue down this road. George’s vocals are great for what they are, but he still has a little bit of a way to go towards making sure his vocal lines are distinct from track to track and grab the ear. There’s a few stand out moments on these songs that hint at his ability to pull this off in the future, and I’ve found several of the hooks here stuck in my head for days. But his vocals can also start to turn into a bit of a blur towards the end of the album, making it difficult to latch onto specific lyrics and hooks since he essentially has one gear and one gear only. Sometimes this works in the album’s favor, and I do love the hazy hypnotism of those staccato, soft vocals, but other times it wears thin and ironically, could still use a bit more variety in tone and dynamics. The music itself suffers from a similar problem, as well. These songs are engineered to sound thick, lush, and foggy, creating dense layers of sound that are so easy to get lost in. But like George’s vocals, towards the end of the album the trick starts to wear out its welcome, sacrificing atmosphere for memorable guitar parts or tantalizing lead work. I’m hard pressed to pick out any guitar parts here that really wow me, and sometimes that’s a sign that a band knows when to focus on the songwriting instead of showing off their chops, but I can’t help but wish that the guitar work had more meat on its bones than shoegaze-y textures and simple chord progressions.

Despite all that, overall I’m intrigued and in love with Deafheaven’s new sound. They’ve taken a bold risk by jettisoning most of their trademark sound and vocal style, and it seems like Infinite Granite is a record they’ve wanted to make since Sunbather. There’s a lot of promise in how the band utilizes sound and texture to emphasize atmospheres, emotion, and George’s clean vocals, and many parts of this album truly feel like a triumph. But at the same time, there are moments where the band has simply ventured too far into that middle ground that they have avoided for so long. Infinite Granite occasionally yearns for some higher highs, more rise-and-fall dynamics, or even just the odd stand out guitar part to liven up some of what can become one-note and monotonous towards the end of its runtime. But because so much of this record is simply so good at what it is going for right off the bat, this all feels more like transitory growing pains than failure to rise to the occasion. Either way, Deafheaven have opened up a world of doors for themselves with this album, and if it was already hard to guess what direction they would go next, with Infinite Granite they’ve made the possibilities limitless.

Top 20 of 2013

2013 was a great year for new music, at least personally, and since I like to review my favorite albums I slowly put together a top 20 through the year. Past my top 5 or so, the rankings don’t mean a lot since it’s hard to put different kinds of music above or below one another, but whatever. Call me a nerd or tell me I have too much time on my hands, here’s my top 20.

1. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer

I knew this was probably going to be my album of the year after the 2nd listen. I may have listened to other albums more, or for longer, but One of Us is the Killer was special for me. If you’ve ever heard Dillinger before, you know what to expect from one of their albums (that being tightly-wound, frenetic mathcore with an experimental slant). That being said, this album actually distills a lot of the ground they’ve covered into a more coherent, straight forward attack compared to previous efforts. But the reason this album was special was that it came at a time when I needed something angry and aggressive to kick me out of a funk, and it did the trick marvelously.

Top Tracks: Prancer, One of Us is the Killer, Paranoia Shields

2. Cloudkicker – Subsume

On the other side of heavy things, this year Cloudkicker delivered what’s possibly Ben Sharp’s best work to date. Inspired by the novel 1Q84 (which is a great read in and of itself), Subsume is an ambitious record that jumps back and forth between the djent-influenced riffing of his past and the more introspective, quieter side of his present without ever sounding disjointed. From start to finish Subsume feels like a journey, starting off gently and then rocketing through layers of sound until reaching it’s fuzz-drenched climax during ‘You could laugh forever but never end up happy’.

Top Tracks: A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time, You could laugh forever but never end up happy.

3. Protest the Hero – Volition

For all the music I listened to this year, my top three wound up being all metal albums.

Protest made waves when they decided to forego a label’s backing and crowd fund their new album, and their fans responded in kind by giving them more than twice the amount they needed. The result is their best album since 2008’s Fortress.

I have to admit, their last album before Volition lost me a little. The lyrics were pretty cringe-worthy for a band that used to write thought-provoking concept albums, and some of the songs just didn’t feel very inspired. That’s all changed with Volition, though – Rody’s stepped up his game lyrically, and with Chris Adler filling in on drums, they sound heavier and faster than they have in a while. Stylistically, things haven’t changed much, but the one thing I have to commend most is the themes tackled in the lyrics. It takes guts to write songs about bigotry and rape culture on a metal album (with metal not being the most open-minded fanbase out there), and it’s even better when it doesn’t feel like they’re pandering or talking down. All in all, Volition shows Protest at the top of their game.

Top Tracks: Skies, Clarity, Animal Bones, Plato’s Tripartite

4. NK – Nothing to Be Gained Here

I’ve been following NK since they were called North Korea, and this year they finally released their debut album. They’ve softened a bit since their first two EPs, but their sound still features a unique blend of grungey riffs, Radiohead-esque soundscapes, and a rhythm section that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Top Tracks: Set A Fire, Shoulder Gorilla, Vacation Days

5. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

The second half of their double album, The Afterman, lives up to it’s predecessor and continues to deliver Coheed’s trademark sound. While front-loaded with some of the bands heaviest and most progressive songs in years (Gravity’s Union being the first Coheed song recorded on an 8 string guitar), it starts to tail off towards the end into more sentimental, poppy sounds. Away We Go sounds like the eighties’ idea of a pop-punk love song, and 2’s My Favorite 1 is straight up cheese, in the best way. This works best when paired with it’s other half, Ascension, as it serves as a sort of come-down to the 18 track whole. Overall, while it could’ve been tracklisted a bit better, Descension is still a great album.

Top Tracks: Gravity’s Union, Sentry the Defiant, Dark Side of Me,  2’s My Favorite 1

6. Death Grips – Government Plates

Government Plates is experimental even for Death Grips, eschewing most song structure and even vocals in favor of a more free-form, electronic approach. For a band that managed to somehow cram hooks into music that rightfully shouldn’t on their first three albums, Government Plates is a disorienting listen, but one that’s all the better for it once it finally clicks.

Top Tracks: You might think he loves you…, Birds, Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

7. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

I checked out Fuck Buttons solely because I needed to know what a band with a name like that even sounded like. The answer? An electronic band whose music is structured like a post rock band playing noise music. They’re aggressive and trance-inducing at the same time.

Top Tracks: Brainfreeze, Hidden Xs, Stalker

8. Danny Brown – Old

Half street music and half club music, Old is a concept album about the struggles of growing up the ghetto and not letting it define his entire life at the same . Combine that with Danny Brown’s wicked sense of humor, and you get one of my favorite rap albums of 2013.

Top Tracks: Side A (Old), 25 Bucks, Way Up Here

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

For all the things that could be said about Kanye, the one thing you can’t take away from him is his music. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a grandiose ‘I’m sorry for being Kanye West’, then Yeezus is the exact opposite, shoving his arrogance in the face of the world. Nothing in his discography could’ve predicted the sound of Yeezus, its being laced with dark, almost industrial synth lines and minimalist beats, and as a result it has more bite than much of his work could ever hope to have. For an artist as mainstream as Kanye to release an album like this takes courage, and it mostly proves itself. However, some of the lyrics are certainly pretty cringe-worthy, and it takes a bit of a dip in the second half, so I can’t call it one of my absolute favorites. Either way, Kanye has proved himself as an artist by taking this chance.

Top Tracks: New Slaves, Black Skinhead, Blood on the Leaves

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather

Sunbather took me a bit by surprise. I usually don’t like black metal, or anything that sounds like it, but I had to make an exception for this record. Deafheaven takes the vocal approach of black metal (the shrieking, screamed vocals) and pairs it with a sound that’s more akin to My Bloody Valentine moving to Scandinavia and playing metal. With most of its songs going well over the ten minute mark, the music takes on a nearly hypnotic effect as it swells and crescendos, only stopping for the three interludes after each main track. While admittedly, their vocalist doesn’t have a lot of range (he has two speeds – AHHH and AHHHHHH) and threatens to bring the band’s unique sound down at times, I still think it’s a great album.

11. Nice Hooves – Nice Hooves

Featuring members of my other favorite hardcore band, The Armed, Nice Hooves deliver a more punk take on thrashy, noisy metal. Their album is free to download at http://nicehooves.bandcamp.com/ and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in any of that.

12. Palms – Palms

Palms is a supergroup made of of members of Isis and fronted by Chino Moreno of Deftones. While some of the songwriting could certainly be stronger, the atmosphere the album delivers alone makes of for it, delving into dreamy, shoegaze influenced post-rock that neither Isis or Deftones truly explored.

Top Tracks: Mission Sunset, Future Warrior, Antarctic Handshake

13. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

…Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s first album in 6 years, and as you’d expect from that big of a gap, it sounds pretty different than any other album of theirs. Stripping away most of their ‘stoner rock’ sound, Like Clockwork finds the band focusing more on straightforward rock numbers, and surprisingly, piano ballads. While this could have been disastrous for a band like Queens, by drawing on Josh Homme’s near-death experience, they infuse the songs with real meaning and atmosphere that give it a unique character from start to finish.

Top Tracks: I Appear Missing, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By The Ocean, My God Is The Sun

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I’ll be honest, I’m totally biased when it comes to Eminem. I grew up on his music so I’m a lot more lenient on his newer stuff. But even though the guy basically gets a free pass from me, MMLP2 is actually really goddamn good, even if it can never touch the original MMLP. Em revisits Stan on Bad Guy, shows an insane level of technical skill on Rap God, apologizes to his mother on Headlights, and kills it on a hilarious track with Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a start to finish masterpiece, and it’d be great if he’d stop shouting so damn much, but MMLP2 proves that Eminem is still the same old Shady.

Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Love Game, Rap God, Headlights, The Monster

Other Favorites:

15. Lorde – Pure Heroine
16. O’Brother – Disillusion
17. Clutch – Earth Rocker
18. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
19. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
20. J. Cole – Born Sinner