Deafheaven 2021
Photo: Robin Laananen / Courtesy of Rarely Unable

Deafheaven Put Aside Metal and Embrace Melody on ‘Infinite Granite’

Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite is a very successful shoegaze-inspired alt-rock record with a great sense of dynamics and some really catchy songs.

Infinite Granite
Sargent House
20 August 2021

They’ve been playing around with the idea for years, but with Infinite Granite, Deafheaven have finally released an album that ignores the black metal side of their sound. Vocalist George Clarke spends the bulk of the album singing, which seems like an odd thing to say about a vocalist. Clarke, however, has spent the band’s previous four albums howling and shrieking, ceding all melodic content to the band’s guitarists, Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra.

The quintet have never been strictly a metal act. True, all of Deafheaven’s earlier records feature not just Clarke’s harsh vocals but heavy, chugging guitars and pounding high-speed drums. However, those songs often included slower melodic sections, where less aggressive, even catchy guitars came to the fore for moments of beauty. The band would happily sit in these waves of sound for extended periods, in no hurry to get back to the driving metal. 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love had whole tracks that never quite achieved a sound that could be considered “metal”. The band occasionally deployed Clarke as more of a shrieking background color than an in-your-face point of focus.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Clarke talked about how the rest of the band were “Expanding and getting better at what they were doing. And in certain ways, I was as well, but there’s a part of me that’s always felt like the weak musical link.” On Infinite Granite, he has clearly put in the work to develop his singing voice, and while he may not yet be the strongest singer in terms of tone and power, what he’s doing fits this material very well. Adding melodic vocals is undoubtedly a less awkward challenge for the band than it would be to continue to find ways to work the howls into these songs.

Infinite Granite‘s early singles give a pretty good accounting of the album’s sound. “Great Mass of Color” goes all-in on catchy rock. The chiming opening guitar riff is quickly joined by a second, distorted guitar and buzzing bass, but the band backs off to just that chiming riff during the verses. Clarke sings impressionistic lyrics about lying in bed and being overwhelmed by sensations of color coming at him. The band rises in volume again for the chorus, where Clarke hits a genuine hook: “I feel them all / Great mass of color / Flooding in my bed.”

Shortly before the three-minute mark, the song shifts to a subdued bridge but doesn’t lose any of its momentum. This is the kind of passage that would be all guitars on previous Deafheaven albums, but Clarke can now sing in a gentle style that matches the rest of the music. Finally, at around five minutes, the band shifts into a noisy, heavy coda, and Clarke unleashes a couple of his trademark howls, although they’re pretty low in the mix.

“The Gnashing” and “In Blur” are similar in scope. The former is a hard-driving rocker with classic heavy, distorted rhythm guitar and cleaner, reverb-laden leads. This is a track where Clarke’s voice could use a little more oomph. His singing is a bit delicate for the intensity, and it gets somewhat lost in the band’s noise. The song is constructed similarly to “Great Mass”, with the traditional rock song taking up the first three minutes, followed by a short section of quiet music, and then a slower, heavy jam for the final two minutes.

However, “In Blur” makes good on the ’90s shoegaze style that’s always been an element of Deafheaven’s sound. It could easily be sold as a Ride cover, and nobody but the hardcore Ride fans would even bat an eye. Drummer Daniel Tracy and bassist Chris Johnson lay down a simple, effective groove, while McCoy and Mehra let their guitars ring out sweetly but noisily throughout the song. Clarke’s vocals are more in a baritone range here, which contrasts with the high-pitched guitars. That lets his voice cut through the mix more successfully.

The balance of Infinite Granite works in similar ways. McCoy’s songs still have the feeling of cresting waves that push into calmer sections before cranking up again. It’s just that on this album, they mostly don’t crank up into pummeling heavy metal. That’s also reflected in the song lengths. While on previous albums, the band routinely crossed the 10-minute threshold, most of these tracks hover in the five-to-six minute zone. That’s a little long for a rock band but remarkably brief for Deafheaven.

Opener “Shellstar” has echoing guitars and skittering beats that closely resemble the relaxed vibe of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love‘s more sedate pieces. Clarke’s singing voice fits in very well here, skimming over the top of the guitars as they swell and shrink. The shoegaze distortion peaks three separate times, and the band deftly brings it back down twice. The third peak is the song’s climax, and Clarke’s voice is multi-tracked, whispering in the foreground, singing wordless “Na na na’s” in another layer, and possibly howling in the background underneath all of the guitar distortion and drum fills.

“Lament for Wasps” showcases how far drummer Daniel Tracy has come since the early days of the band. On the group’s breakout album Sunbather, his overreliance on blast beats sometimes kept the band’s songs from achieving maximum impact. His drumming has gotten progressively more interesting since then. The early moments of this track need his kick drum and floor tom work to drive it along, while the first significant change to chiming guitars finds Tracy adding his snare into the beat for emphasis. Tracy is there with cymbal crashes and snare rolls when the track gets to its long, catchy chorus, with one of the best guitar leads on the record. This song shifts moods and textures several more times throughout its seven minutes, and Tracy’s playing is masterful throughout. At times he accentuates the changes, and at others, he keeps the beat going while everything else changes around him.

Infinite Granite has two true outliers. “Neptune Raining Diamonds” is a three-minute, synth-driven transition piece between “Great Mass of Color” and “Lament for Wasps”. It’s slow and ambient, with cozy washes of sound swelling and receding throughout the track. Closer “Mombasa” is the only song on the album that doesn’t ebb and flow. Instead, it starts quietly and builds the whole way through. The song begins with a pair of acoustic guitars in a small duet before light drums, warm bass, and strummed electric guitar enter. Clarke sings in his delicate voice again, but in this situation, it works perfectly.

Eventually, an arpeggiated synth comes in, giving the song subtle motion in the background. After five minutes of gradual build, the band explodes, pushing the song’s existing themes into full metal territory. Clarke finally unleashes his howl while the guitars grind around him while Tracy goes all-out on the drums. It’s a powerful, cathartic finish to the album and a nice nod to let the longtime fans know that the band hasn’t forgotten how to rock out.

Without Deafheaven’s trademark stark contrast between harsh metal and softer passages, Infinite Granite feels at first like it’s missing something. Clarke needed another gear to keep up with the band’s musical development, but by nearly entirely eschewing his previous vocal style, he may have swung a bit too far in the other direction. It may take a couple of spins for listeners to adjust their expectations, but those who can will be rewarded. Taken on its own terms, this is a very successful shoegaze-inspired rock record with a great sense of dynamics and some really catchy songs.

RATING 8 / 10