Review Summary: This is not blackgaze but this is good music nonetheless; whodathunk?10 Years Gone
was Deafheaven's way to free themselves of black metal. The career-spanning retrospective saw the band partner with longtime producer Jack Shirley to offer fans a natural-sounding rendition of their catalog; mostly shining by bestowing some tracks the best sound they ever sported - looking at you, "Glint". After celebrating their blackgaze brand in the most fashionable way possible, the band could focus on what comes beneath all layers of effects and different tones: songs. Guitarist Kerry McCoy previously said it in a 2014 Guitar Planet interview: their creative starting point almost always comes from a single riff on an acoustic guitar. If that riff doesn't sound good, applying makeup on it will simply postpone the eventual boredom. This time, they decided to go one step further by withdrawing most of their music's metal aspects.
This stylistic deconstruction does not go as far as releasing an acoustic project, as it still sounds very much like previous Deafheaven records and their reverb-soaked compositions. At first, one might think that they've simply "changed the effects" - ie: remove the distortion and add even more reverb -, but they have rather revisited their entire creative process. The band went through tons of different versions of each song, trying to build peaks without relying on crescendos and blast beats. Here, the focal point is s p a c e
- and there's tons of it thanks to the production team.
was engineered by good ol' Jack Shirley, mixed by Darrell Thorp - who previously worked with Foo Fighters or Radiohead - and produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen. The man was Beck's former bassist, and worked with way too many good bands and artists to cite (here are some of them nonetheless: Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent, or Wolf Alice). His eminence comes from a huge pop sound whose bomb-ass-thicc-ness is on par with its maximalism - think M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
. This direct influence is to be found literally everywhere on the record, but the most evident link lies in the second track, "In Blur". Exhibiting a grand and epic soundscape, the shoegaze riffs are complemented by little sonic snippets coming straight out of the Hurry Up
canon, rising together to conclude with what some might call "a dumb solo". No blast beat, no party, uh? "In Blur" nevertheless manages to show its explosiveness through an all-encompassing sonic scenery - the band's most definitive feature, complemented here by top-notch production.
The production's sonic clarity allows every little detail lets itself be heard, and each one of them, be it the light harmonies or the vocalizations, has its place and therefore its importance in the musical spectrum. Despite the profusion of elements, the whole lot is fortunately not too busy. This allows drummer Daniel Tracy and bassist Chris Johnson to show their quality, supplying warmth and dynamics that never had more spotlight than ever in the band's discography. In this regard, the transition on "In Blur" feels particularly effortless thanks to how they manage to kick it up without disturbing the astral atmosphere. On this track too, can the other major adjustment signify its presence: vocals. Here, vocalist George Clarke - like always drenched in ethereal effects - sings, not letting any slight scream emerge from his larynx. No blast beat, and no screaming on top of that: Deafheaven seem to be shedding the last vestiges of their (never-existent) black metal tag. If they wanted to get kicked out of Metal Archives, they couldn't have done it better.
As for the vocal performance as such, Clarke has more than expanded his vocal range: whispers, multi-vocals harmonies, and falsettos have largely replaced that good ol' screm. One could criticize a tad too many effects applied on his voice, which is understandable when you have to deal with a screamer wanting to whisper and sing. In the worst instances, Clarke does sound like Chester Bennington (RIP big fella) who got a cold, like on "Other Language", or like Ghost's Papa Emeritus on "In Blur". "The Gnashing" also falters in its vocal delivery, ultimately falling flat even though it was designed as a heroic piece. Truth be told, the vocals are not bad
per se, but they do not always land where they should. They especially deliver when they take on the same good ol' role as on preceding records: a conveyor of atmosphere rather than a purveyor of meaning. Clarke's role was always about acting like an instrument delivering cryptic mysticism. Here, he's at his most comfortable when he's gliding through the songs, and he's much less at ease when he's trying to impose his presence on top of the soundscape.
It's mostly in the Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra's leads that the album is memorable. They drive "Shellstar" with crystalline guitars into an uptempo atmospheric piece that conjures as much summer haze as Sunbather
, the screams being replaced by quasi-black metal whispers. This opener does a tremendous job at delivering engaging heavygaze much more rooted in traditional songwriting (verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus) than all their previous tunes. Another example of the duo's prominence is "Great Mass of Color", showing off that big rock energy riff alongside Slowdivesque spacy guitars. If the middle part isn't enthralling or *that* particularly pretty compared to other heavygaze acts - ask Jesper for that -, the final minute stands as a huge payoff when Clarke delivers one single cathartic scream while the guitars finally ascent together.
This formula of letting it slightly go at the end of a track is repeated - to various degrees of diversity - throughout most of Infinite Granite
. Of course there's the typical ambient piece, "Neptune Raining Diamond", which does not accomplish anything apart from letting the listener breathe and being pretty, but the rest follows the same template. "Villain" is heavygaze concluding in simili-blackgaze, "The Gnashing" utilizes its start-and-stop dynamics to showcase its alt rock origins. "Other Language" is present to make you realize that it does oddly resemble previous tunes' structure: it quietly starts with a post-rock etiquette, then proceeds to calm down a bit only to gear up to eleven in the final minute or so. If "Lament for Wasps" sports the big production and big epic riff combination that culminates in another "dumb solo", it does conclude with - oh damn - double bass! It was mentioned on Jeremy Bolm's podcast that "Lament For Wasps" was the first song they wrote for the album - and it shows, being the most identifiable blackgaze track. All these tracks point out to one structural change within Deafheaven's template: the songs are shorter - none of them go beyond the 8 minute mark - and straight to the point, at least relatively to the band's past catalog. Maybe this is due to the relative lack of gigantic peaks throughout the record, the band choosing - not wrongfully - to compact all their ingredients into tracks that take less time to reach their conclusion.
But then, there's "Mombasa". To be more precise, the fucking
end of "Mombasa"; the beginning being a lovely post-gaze lullaby. When it finally explodes, it's less in the traditional Deafheaven blackgaze fashion than in a blackgaze-meets-2nd-wave-shrieks accompanied with angelic background vocals. After spending forty minutes shying away from their roots, the band concludes the record with one of their most violent salvo, which works even better given the relative calm preceding it. It also acts as a reminder: by sequencing it at the end, Deafheaven confess they are not quite done yet with black metal, and they do so with one of their most gripping tracks ever.
So, yeah, it's different without being all that different. Is it that surprising? On the contrary: it represents their most natural evolution to date. The band’s last album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
, traded good songs for post-rocky lulls, and this asymmetry was rectified on Infinite Granite
. It's not perfect of course: the vocals are a mixed bag, and the songwriting remains similar across the album - but which Deafheaven album does not share this specific trait?
Cool: this isn't shit. It's no grand redefinition of an already-mastered genre, nor the magnum opus
of a band tired of their own aesthetic. It's simply the work of a band reinventing their sound without jeopardizing their legacy. Whether or not this means the end of their black metal venture - it most likely isn't - Deafheaven have found a formula that sounds an awful lot like Deafheaven while displaying new ways of bringing the same cathartic emotions. Ten years is a good milestone to try to change the way you do things, and they did so by replacing heaviness with intensity: the calm sections are as dreamy as they ever were, but it's when the band show their muscle that they fully accomplish the feat of removing almost all traces of their black metal love without losing much power. Infinite Granite
isn't Deafheaven's best album, but it's the one they needed to do.