Review Summary: UMBASA
Was it ever really about shoegaze until now? With a couple of significant exceptions, I’ve always felt that this side of Deafheaven’s sound was largely ornamental and that even the label “blackgaze” skirted the point of what they were really about. Allow me to spirit you back to the heady days of Sunbather
, where Deafheaven drew relatively little on atmosphere or nebulous approximations of shoegaze compared to their general ballpark of contemporaries or precedents. They weren’t as pretty as Alcest, as expansive as Wolves In The Throne Room, as grandiose as Agalloch or as frenetic as Envy. However, they tapped into a blockbuster immediacy and sense of passionate rapture that none of those forebears had shown much interest in. Deafheaven threw out black metal’s frosty wistfulness along with its pagan waffle, streamlining its sprawling fuzz towards larger-than-life emotional beats. That
was what cut them out from the pack and attracted such enduring popularity; any role shoegaze played in that matrix was auxiliary to broader expansive tendencies in Deafheaven’s sound, which in turn were auxiliary to that all-important sense of catharsis.
Anyhow, I digress. Sunbather
practically has its own legacy by now; for Deafheaven in a wider sense, things are a little trickier. In hindsight, it’s still unclear whether Sunbather
was more of an electrified moment of inspiration or a well-gauged refinement act. The band’s following career caters to both possibilities, somewhat unflatteringly. Proponents argue that their insistence on altering their style between each release is demonstrative of some wider artistic vision, but more than anything else I hear a creative restlessness in their later works. It’s as though the group were confident in their general sound and proficiency both as writers and musicians but found themselves in frustrated pursuit for a stylistic avenue that would reward their writing style. They came close with New Bermuda
, which showcased some of their best writing to date in its bookends, only to stumble through their clunkiest in its middle stretch. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
went several steps further, forcing black metal kinetics into an ill-advised cocktail of meandering song structures and Corganite alt-rock clichés of the sickliest-sweetest disposition. That album crammed its corny hooks into umpteen cloying climaxes, traipsing far beyond the confines of good taste all the way to the border of outright self-parody.
Crucially however, the band’s performance was as earnest as ever; dead set against repeating past successes, they had hardly run out of things to express but found themselves victim to fickle inspirations in the meantime. The future was uncertain; that record opened up certain possibilities as much as it exhausted others. Deafheaven c.2018 were more open than ever to melodic possibilities but had seemingly hit a wall when it came to inserting blast beats into places where blast beats quite clearly did not belong. Ditching the latter while finding a new direction for the former was an obvious possibility for them, but to what end? Did they have it in them to make another record as unified as Sunbather
? Were that record’s standards truly the object of their apparent ongoing search, or were they keener for a way to break out from its shadow? Where do their ever-growing mainstream-contingent audience fit into all this? Phwoar boy, aren’t those quite the stakes...
In all honesty, Deafheaven’s latest effort Infinite Granite
is far more interesting within the context of that search than as an album on its own terms. It makes some clear statements: the band have outgrown black metal, they’ve doubled down on shoegaze in a way that past releases only hinted at, and they’ve fleshed things out with a blend of alternative and post-rock. For the reasons just outlined, none of these changes are outright shocking, but it’s still a bold reorientation to say the least - and if it occasionally borders on reverberated landfill indie by way of hi-fi post-rock, then this seems conveniently secondary thanks to a watertight production job that renders the album sound appropriately spacious while accenting each and every minute detail like a granite pea under a dissocialite’s mattress. So far so good; these guys still know how to play the trends.
Looking at the album a little more earnestly, some changes stand out more prominently than others. Conspicuously, vocalist George Clarke is (mostly) clean and dry for the first time; his mournful Curtis-up-an-octave delivery evokes hey-day post-punk, while his bandmates’ foundation often nods towards ‘00s alt-rock’s revival of the same. This shift is smooth but not seamless, with their arrangements often handled in ways you would never hear from a traditional shoegaze band. This goes particularly for drummer Daniel Tracy, whose ever-mobile whirl of fills and rolls are a far cry from the understated approach of most shoegaze stick-people (“Lament For Wasps” shows him at his busiest). Guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra also stand out for their use of distortion, both in the latent aggression with which they layer it thick over their rhythm tracks and in their tone (take your classic gaze settings, dial fuzz down and compression up, and you’re basically there). Predictably, the band’s now-intelligible lyrics and nomenclature are belaboured and immature by the standards of a genre that has spent its entire lifetime drawing salient associations with all things tactile and/or visual. The decision to entitle an instrumental dead-air interlude “Neptune Raining Diamonds” is a particularly winceable example of the metal band learning to speak grown-up poetics
at play here. It’s reflective of the penmanship across the board here, but it’s more comical background interference than active obstruction and I’m kind enough that we won’t discuss any actual lyrics.
These details are more interesting aberrations, but they hardly reflect the whole album: Infinite Granite
is keener to conform to the Dreamer’s Guide To Shoegaze than to subvert it. At it’s best, it’s an engaging take on familiar thrills, and the introductory pair are a case study to this end. Opener “Shellstar” kicks off with flair, vaguely recalling New Bermuda
closer “Gifts For The Earth”’s simmering urgency as it channels some of band’s most focused songwriting this far into fleeting bursts of wailing distortion and a wonderfully organic final build. Single “In Blur” also fares well, a midtempo balancing act between verse/chorus rigidity and a pervasive maudlin atmosphere. The latter comes courtesy of eerie background vocals and a beautiful melodic coda, and it coincides with Clarke’s most convincing performance, perhaps the only moment where his voice carries a track to a greater degree than the instrumentation. If Deafheaven wanted to prove that they could write a convincing alt-rock song backed by a well-varied arrangement, then these two are surely comfortable victories.
On the flipside, the album at its worst is almost openly derivative. Deafheaven have never exactly played down the cues they’ve taken from Envy, but “Lament For Wasps” sees this eschew mere influence for the first time. The song’s second half recalls Insomniac Doze
’s dense atmosphere and twinkly post-rock down to the slightest details - doubtless unintentional, but nonetheless subject to the same overreliance on trite melodies and listless pacing that blighted that era of Envy. “The Gnashing” sees Clarke’s inflections overlap with Interpol vocalist Paul Banks in its first half’, its arpeggios approximate a certain Foo Fighters classic in its second. Already one of the weaker cuts, these parallels are too strong for the song to back its surging waves of distortion with anything approaching a distinct identity, something that would be easier to shrug off if its two halves had any meaningful relation to one another, but as it is it feels like one unfortunate faux-pas after another. Finally, “Mombasa” finds Deafheaven aping the most unacceptable group of all: themselves. After a mesmeric acoustic-driven introduction that has a claim to their most dreamlike segment to date, the track hits a seemingly predestined climax; it is, after all, a Deafheaven song. However, in a last hurrah that reeks of audience appeasement like nothing else, Deafheaven decide that in this case a Deafheaven song
should constitute a recycling of the ecstatic shrieks and pounding blast beats that characterised their past records, reducing themselves to their base tropes as though out of insecurity that the Infinite Granite
experience would be incomplete otherwise. It’s not that the track outright sounds bad
(though it’s far from their best outing in this vein), but neither is it impressive enough to amount to the epic finale it so clearly strives for. Instead, it’s a rather soulless moment that cheapens the stylistic commitment made so staunchly by the rest of the album.
However, the bulk of Infinite Granite
suffers from a good ol’ shoegaze pitfall that neither starts nor ends with Deafheaven: these tracks are simply rather dull. The troublesome first single “Great Mass of Color” is a virtual warning parable against the band’s predictable melodies and insistence that maximalist dynamics carry the stakes of their songs; it snoozes through three minutes of bland shoegaze before phoning a slowburning climax that, only three songs in, already feels like one too many. It packs the bare minimum of intensity to signify that you, O air-Conditioned Humble Listener, are indeed technically still listening to a metal band, and the whole thing scans as listless. Skip ahead and you’ll come to “Villain”, which pulls the same trick somewhat better, peaking more fiercely and adding a rare original chord change to the Deafheaven playbook, but skip further and you’ll hit “Other Language”, a total non-event of a track more memorable for the peak-and-valley outline of its waveform than for anything that occurs within.
The recurrent problem with these tracks is that they half commit to a timbre-first shoegaze ethos but then break the immersion by cutting back around the two-third mark and volte facing into overbearing build-ups. Good shoegaze tends to present the kind of atmospheres and textures that a patient listener can hold their breath and get lost in, but Deafheaven’s take on the style is so focused on handholding its audience through its every dynamic shift that a large part of this intrigue is lost in translation. It’s no coincidence that “Shellstar”, the most texturally adroit track on the album is also the most dynamically fluid; its alternations between glossy fuzz and crystalline clean delay smooth over each change in intensity and scan as the main event rather than the by-product of whichever cumbersome escalation is on hand. The aesthetic may be all there, but the band’s shoegaze methodology either misses or fails to reconceive the style’s woozy intuitive Point. Alas.
All is not lost, though. Infinite Granite
does posit a concrete achievement of sorts with Deafheaven’s career. Its style is continuous and, while occasionally underwhelming, never disastrous. That very nearly amounts to outright consistency; it’s certainly the first time Deafheaven have released a holistic album since Sunbather
, and, if they have indeed arrived at the end of whatever tangled road lay between their interim works, then it is also their first viable contender for a fresh point of departure in future. Who knows whether this may be the case; having placed themselves wholly under the aegis of a style that informed the rest of their discography in a subdominant category, I wouldn’t be surprised if they take the Opethian route and dedicate the rest of their career to it. Who knows. One thing’s for certain: whatever legacy this album has will rest more on the band’s poster boy credentials than on anything groundbreaking it adds to shoegaze’s drowsy yesterday-empire but hey, odds are you knew that already.