May 5, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Jan Alfaro
“Near” by Deafheaven was recently in my Spotify Discover Weekly. I played it a few times while cleaning my room and then sent it to a close friend of mine who I often exchange rock songs with. She responded by saying that it was really sad, and that the abundance of minor chords is what conveys this feeling. I was surprised at first, but then thought about what she said and got sad when listening to the tune later.
Of course, as an avid lover of sad music, I then explored this new artist hoping to add more to my repertoire. I peeked through Deafheaven’s most recent album, “Infinite Granite”, and listened to “In Blur” rather hastily, quickly adding it to a playlist because it sounded good right off the bat.
Let’s skip ahead a few days; I shuffle my rock playlist while biking at the gym, and “In Blur” comes on. Coincidentally, the song’s bpm matched the bike rpm I was trying to stick with so naturally, I ended up listening to the five-and-a-half-minute song about five more times. The song’s strong energy made me push a little harder and sweat a little more, so I figured why not dive into the band and their most recent piece of work for my earjam and potentially find new biking songs along the way?
Deafheaven is a San Francisco-based band that formed in 2010 with vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy. Later that year, they recruited a few other members but have since then created a rotation in their composition, which now includes drummer Daniel Tracy, guitarist, background vocalist, and keyboarder Shiv Mehra, and bassist Chris Johnson, alongside the initial two members. While loosely going through their discography and reading about the group online, I learned they’re labeled as a black metal band and, within the metal head community, their most recent album was poorly received.
It seems the 2021-released “Infinite Granite” is for “soy boys” (an online insult for someone devoid of “masculine” characteristics) as it gears towards a soft-metal, shoegaze (think Cocteau Twins and Slowdive), dream pop (Mazzy Star, Beach House, This Mortal Coil) sound. Call me what you want, but I think the album has some great sounds as it draws inspiration from groups such as Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, and Slowdive. I’ve only recently started really getting into rock, so heavy black metal is still a genre I only dabble in here and there because of its intensity.
The album as a whole has a pretty similar sound song-to-song. Included are shimmery guitar, post-rock chord progressions, synthesizers, keyboard, colorful atmospheric soundscapes, and softspoken vocals that seem to be intentionally monotonous (following a shoegaze sound). Almost every track follows the same pattern where there is a simplistic guitar progression, soft-spoken vocals, light-tapped percussion, and maybe keyboard, a slow buildup with obvious tension resolved by a big spacey atmospheric boom. The latter component varies a little where they’ll either ride out the full band kick, slow down into an almost half-time breather, or return to their black metal roots.
As for the return to their black metal roots, there are some screamed vocals such as in the last minute of “Great Mass Color” and even more present in the final track “Mombasa,” but overall, the album maintains a level of restraint that when fully unleashed in the last track as a treat, gives listeners a brief glimpse of their black metal side.
“The idea here,” as the band has said, “was to set aside Deafheaven’s customary dramatic compositional dynamics in favor of subtler textural shifts achieved via the recording process itself.” While that may delight audiophiles, an immersive headphones listen is only ever as powerful as the performance that drives it.
On “Infinite Granite,” that performance is always skillful but rarely – aside from perfectly paced closer “Mombasa” – powerful in the ways Deafheaven have been in the past. If “Infinite Granite” was a debut by a band with no backstory, it’d be impressive as hell. But knowing Deafheaven’s singular ability to pull off thrilling highwire acts, their latest subversion of expectations feels less like a bold statement and more like a predictable move to gentler pastures.”
As somebody who was introduced to Deafheaven by their softer, more dream-pop material, there is not much I can critique them for, as I wasn’t there for their heavy metal side. The similarity across the album may be a point of weakness for some, which is what the Pitchfork article seems to argue, but there can be appreciation for an album that allows listeners to sit back and relax with no major surprises.