Ask a purist and they’ll tell you that Deafheaven has never been metal. Which is gatekeeping bullshit, of course: Neither the absence of corpse paint nor the presence of some gorgeously shimmering guitar places these Bay Area adventurers outside a lineage of black metal bands that have toyed productively with the conventions of their chosen genre. Still, maybe no one has asked such questions of classification—of where Deafheaven really fits—more loudly than its own members: If 2015’s harder-edged New Bermuda felt like a transparent attempt to establish their black metal bona fides after the breakout blogosphere success of Sunbather, the more recent Ordinary Corrupt Human Love tacked further in the opposite direction, embracing the sparkling euphonic grandeur with little apparent concern for what the Mayhem crowd might say. It made for their most majestic album—and their best, too.
One LP later, and a decade into its career, Deafheaven seems more comfortable than ever with its place in the heavy metal landscape. Maybe that’s because the band has basically removed itself from it. Infinite Granite announces itself as a reinvention from the very start, with the ethereal flutter of “Shellstar,” on which frontman George Clarke tries out a rather new wave croon. It’s a (warning) sign of things to come: Racing past even the relative accessibility of Ordinary, this new record sands away all but a few traces of the heavier side of the group’s beloved hybrid sound, leaving behind only the shoegaze and post-rock elements that once served as melodic counterpoint in wall-of-noise anthems like “Dream House” and “Honeycomb.”
Throughout Infinite Granite, Clarke largely forgoes his signature banshee shriek in lieu of coos, whispers, and clean, soaring vocals. Scarce, too, are blast beats, thrash shredding… really any hint that Deafheaven once took cues from Darkthrone and Agalloch as well as Slowdive and Swervedriver. Drenched in reverb and harmony, “In Blur” is blissfully mellow dream pop, while the instrumental “Neptune Raining Diamonds” introduces some warm, comforting synthesizer to this deconstructed sound—one of a few flourishes that recall new producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s work with M83. Structurally, it’s a literal change of pace: The longest track here barely crosses the 8-minute mark. There are even a few choruses (!), anchoring radiant first single “Great Mass Of Color” and the genuinely catchy “The Gnashing,” which shares a title with one of the best songs from a recent tourmate of Deafheaven’s, another NPR-approved metal act that’s gone softer and more melodic with age.
The cynical read on Infinite Granite is that a band that’s achieved crossover success is now removing any remaining barriers of entry—any vestiges of a more abrasive approach—to court an even wider audience. More charitably, this five-piece is just chasing its muse, undeterred by the expectations of a fanbase or musical subculture. Still, it’s even clearer now that Deafheaven’s appeal is in the tension between disparate styles: All those bright guitar tones and delicate interludes lent black metal a rich new emotional texture, just as the slashing riffage and Clarke’s howls and rasps gave a shot of adrenaline to rock’s dreamier permutations. By filtering out one half of their winning equation, these alchemists risk losing their singularity. Deafheaven’s take on shoegaze isn’t distinctive enough without the novelty of a metallic edge; it sounds like an echo of someone else’s triumphs.
There was variety, too, in the original Deafheaven recipe, a variation on the bombastic touch-the-sky epics laid down by fellow black metal genre blender Alcest. Infinite Granite is easy on the ears, a lush and transporting listen, but it also runs together in a way previous albums from this band—with their hills of jagged intensity and valleys of, yes, heavenly beauty—really didn’t. Here, we get only the beauty: a long, indistinguishable blur of pleasure. And it becomes obvious what’s missing any time Clarke and his bandmates shake off the Ambien haze of their latest and deliver some firepower again. The album closes, for example, with the rousing “Mombasa,” which transitions from a passage of plinking, enveloping balladry into the kind of towering, screaming full-band crescendo otherwise missing from Infinite Granite. Perhaps its sequencing at the end is a good sign, a hint that Deafheaven hasn’t given up on the lesson of its past, grand forays into cross pollination: that sunbathing is even more lovely and rejuvenating when the rays cut through some darkness.