Discover more from The Album of Record
Infinite Granite by Deafheaven
The most intriguing album of the band's career is also one of the most intriguing albums of the year, so far.
When I used to write about sports all the time, there was a race to be first to post a story after a Browns game. To facilitate this mostly self-imposed deadline, I would pre-write as much as I could and then finish quickly with the final score and any last details. Usually, the Browns would be losing and the final margin wasn't that relevant to the post-game summary. Something monumental would happen occasionally, like the Browns losing on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown on the last play of the game to a team that used to be the Browns but moved to Baltimore. (I'm over it. I promise. Maybe.) I'd essentially have to start my story from scratch because the game narrative changed completely. That's how I feel about the new Deafheaven record, Infinite Granite.
I had the entire album review written in my head with the release of their three singles, "In Blur," "Great Mass of Color," and "The Gnashing." I listened to them and thought Deafheaven had lost it. They were off the rails. Deafheaven were no longer doing the hard rock and metal things they do best in favor of becoming a lesser version of shoegaze that other people already do and probably do better. Back in the 90s, I would have simply said that Deafheaven sold out because they wanted to be more popular. It didn’t feel comfortable to me because it was the easy take, but I was convinced it was the Occam’s razor conclusion. After listening to this album on repeat for a few days, I had to rethink my entire narrative. Unlike the Cleveland Browns, who lost games I thought they'd win, Deafheaven have won a game I thought they were going to lose. Consider this my rewrite.
Deafheaven sound like an evolved version of themselves when you hear the whole album in context. The vocal departure is stark, of course. It’s initially jarring to hear George Clarke’s tenor vocal singing instead of a guttural, percussive, metal, screaming growl on every track. However, once you dig in and listen to this album from beginning to end and revisit the previous album, 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, the previous record feels like the awkward puberty years for the band. It was a stepping stone on their way to this more mature, refined record. Make no mistake, I love Ordinary too, but it really fades out at the end both literally and figuratively. Not that Spotify stats are the be-all, end-all, but just look at that album.
The popularity of the songs falls off a cliff. Now, I know better than to think that the tracklisting on a record mirrors a band’s creative process. It’s not likely so linear. There’s no doubt that Infinite Granite is a better constructed album. If I’m predicting how Infinite Granite will age into the future, I don’t think you’ll find a similar pattern of decline. Without trashing Ordinary, I do think Infinite Granite helps to expose some holes in it. For who Deafheaven were, Ordinary was an interesting step forward. For who Deafheaven appear to be after Infinite Granite, there’s little doubt they’ve raised the bar.
That's not to say I love everything about what Deafheaven are doing on Infinite Granite. If I may nitpick and poke a bit of fun at the record for just a second, I wrinkle my nose at whispered vocals. In "Shellstar," singer George Clarke whisper-sings "Flooded with raining, Levees are breaking, Houses are Bursting, Sisters are sleeping." I'm half-kidding when I say that whisper-singing is the metal equivalent of the deep-voiced monologue in a Boyz II Men song. Half kidding means I'm half-serious. Whisper-singing is kind of cheesy. Let's forget about it, though, because this album is just too incredible an achievement to be sunk by something that might only be "a thing" to me.
So let's get geeky on Infinite Granite.
This album isn't perfectly symmetrical, but it feels like there's a Side A and a Side B. Side A is finished with the instrumental "Neptune Raising Diamonds." We heard that Deafheaven was working with "the guy who helped M83," and that guy is Justin Meldal-Johnsen. You never know precisely whose fingerprints are on any particular part of an album, but it's hard to imagine that he wasn't influential on that instrumental or the sampled sounds toward the end of "In Blur."
Whatever impact he had on this record, it's probably fair to say it works. In the context of the whole record, the textures of the guitars, drums, and vocals work perfectly. It sounds layered and big, but not an artificial studio creation. In a perfect scenario, the production will be another instrument in the studio, but not one you necessarily notice all the time. I think Deafheaven achieves that here with Meldal-Johnsen.
Digging into Side A.
Side A consists of "Shellstar," and two of the pre-release singles, "In Blur," and "Great Mass of Color" before ending with "Neptune Raining Diamonds."
"Shellstar" is a bit of a poppy, English-sounding, new-wave-ish romp. The lilting of the vocal melodies stand out on the way to the whisper-singing mentioned above. This is a weird thought to have about a song, but this is something I can't help but wonder, having seen Deafheaven play live a few times in the past. How will they dance and move on stage while playing these songs? It might sound like a superficial question better suited for a pop star, but I think that's only true if you'd judge them harshly for it. Trust me, I'm not going to judge Deafheaven on their dancing. (I'm actually laughing while writing this.) I just picture them from my other experiences seeing the band, brutalizing audiences with Kerry McCoy's guitar riffs and George Clarke's scowling metal growl as metal fans scream lyrics back at the band trying to get as close as possible to the band. I know what Deafheaven sounds like on Infinite Granite, but what will it look like live? It’s hard to imagine. I'll get back to this at the end.
Side B is when you realize that even if the band sounds different sonically, this is still the same collection of artists. The trilogy of songs going from "Lament for Wasps," to "Villain," and ending with "The Gnashing," is an album in itself. It feels like a standalone 18-minute journey, musically. Of course, the same band that did "The Pecan Tree" from Sunbather would construct their album with the bigger picture in mind.
"The Pecan Tree" is essentially three songs or one song with three distinct movements. The first four minutes are brutal metal. It breaks into a piano-tinged calm in the middle before breaking into a much slower, more focused, heavy finish starting just before the 8-minute mark. George Clarke screams, "I am my father's son. I am no one. I cannot love. It's in my blood." over and over as the band drives the song home. There's no song like "The Pecan Tree," on Infinite Granite, but the same band that wrote a song with different movements is seemingly still obsessed with the structure of their music within a song and on an album. If it's not on purpose, I'd be almost as shocked as I was by the album singles that were released ahead of time.
Those singles are great songs in the flow of the album, but they felt like non-sequiturs in the lead-up to getting to hear the album in its entirety. Knowing Deafheaven for the better part of the last decade, I probably should have known better. Then again, it feels kind of natural to doubt Deafheaven and then have them convince me with their work that they know what the hell they're doing.
"Lament for Wasps" is probably the real standout song on this album for many reasons. It kicks off what I consider the second half of the album. It's one of the most anthemic songs on the album. It also sounds the most like previous Deafheaven in the middle of the song. The guitars interplay nicely. One thing of note about the production, and it is very apparent on "Lament for Wasps," dynamics were traded for the lush tone, at least on the album. I'm imagining the live version of this song and it will be stark dynamic shifts compared to the flatter album version. The power of the double-bass pedal is muted here on the record and the vocals sit comfortably on top of it all. That can't possibly be the case in a club or theater with the drums mic'd up to create thunderous low end.
"Villain" also sounds like classic Deafheaven. For another band, this would be a lot of screaming. For Deafheaven, it is not. "The Gnashing" sounds better here in the mix than it did as a single. "Other Language" might be one of the more forgettable tunes on the record, mostly because of the songs before it and what you know is coming at the end.
This brings me to the album closer, "Mombasa." Quite simply, the band seemed out to prove that this is the same fucking band that brought you "From the Kettle Onto the Coil." Yeah, we can play unplugged, and George Clarke can sing soft melodies for more than five minutes and we'll still melt your face with this band for the final three minutes of the album. If this isn't the song that closes shows on the band's next tour, I'll be shocked.
It's perfect because it's saying, we're the same band, but it's also because it creates mystery toward the future. This band could do anything next, and it wouldn't shock you. They could decide to do an EP of songs that sound like the most brutal metal you've ever heard in your life. They could write a record that sounds even more like Pink Floyd. The point with Deafheaven -- and it's been the point with them since Sunbather -- is that we have no idea, but nothing's off the table. Maybe a rap-rock record is off the table, but I digress.
We should have known after the last three albums. If, like me, you didn't know before Infinite Granite came out, well, now you know. There are no excuses left. We know who Deafheaven are, and that means we have no idea who they will be tomorrow.
What will setlists look like? Is this band going to play this album only for a little bit? How do you construct a setlist for Deafheaven? I'll be refreshing Setlist.fm to find out until I can find myself in a crowd of people in front of the band in the future.
It’s interesting to go back to 2014 and see what they were at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Who will they be? We’ll find out soon.