Heavy metal is such an insular genre that a full lineup of bands that have joined the mainstream rock audience would be shorter than a typical grocery list.
There are the legacy artists that everyone knows at least by name, such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Judas Priest. But the more recent artists capable of entering the popular consciousness are a much rarer breed. Relatively aboveground metal groups such as Mastodon, Baroness, and Boris have respectable followers and rich and varied catalogs, but at almost every level they are still considered niche groups.
One of the reasons is that rock in general has retreated to the fringes of popular music. It’s unusual today for a young band to gain significant cultural traction, let alone the heavy metal subcontinent.
In addition, metal imposes its aesthetic boundaries more strictly than any modern musical style, except perhaps punk rock. So any heavy band that attracts non-metalheads usually does so by softening the music enough to reach people who might otherwise be scared. Then, in exchange for this larger audience, the group submits to the skepticism, even outright hostility, of genre purists who feel betrayed by any move towards greater accessibility.
This puts artists in a difficult, if not impossible, position if they want to make a decent living. And for most of the past decade, no metal band has embodied this tension more visibly than the San Francisco quintet Deafheaven.
In 2013, Deafheaven released their acclaimed second album, “Sunbather”, an ambitious and captivating work whose striking intensity was counterbalanced by calmer and melodic passages. Its dynamic power, stunning contrasts, and awe-inspiring beauty made “Sunbather” the go-to heavy metal album that year for people who generally dislike heavy metal.
But “Sunbather” was definitely a metal album. Deafheaven comes from a âblack metalâ tradition, which includes screaming throaty vocals, piercing guitar bursts and punitive blast-beat drums, all generously deployed over the album’s long runtime.
âSunbather was also a very influential record. Since its release, some of the more interesting heavy music has come from the murky line between metal and the alternative rock subgenre of shoegaze, which is characterized by strong guitars, ethereal vocals, and an emphasis on texture and feel. atmosphere on the structures of pop songs.
On each of his subsequent albums – âNew Bermudaâ in 2015 and âOrdinary Corrupt Human Loveâ in 2018 – Deafheaven leaned more into this liminal space between beauty and aggression. And now, on their fifth album, âInfinite Granite,â released last week, the band has almost entirely pivoted to calmer, more accessible territory.
This is great news for people like me who describe themselves as metal curious, even if they are reluctant to fully embrace the genre and its lifestyle components. (I have never looked very good at corpse painting.)
The songs turn, vanish and build themselves patiently. The opening track “Shellstar” begins with a clear, chimes, drenched delay and reverb guitar that sounds more like Slowdive or Explosions in the Sky than any obvious metal influence. When this song, like most of them here, inevitably soars to its explosive climax, it incites fear rather than submission.
The headline is that singer George Clarke has largely given up his hoarse cry in favor of conventional singing. He hasn’t given up on the style entirely, but deploys it much more selectively as a reward. The closing track, “Mombasa”, gives the listener a head butt with a plaintive acoustic guitar intro and layers of sound stacked skyward like Jenga blocks, before Clarke pulls the ripcord and, finally, unleash all of his pent-up demonic intensity.
Deafheaven now sounds like a dreamy rock band that sometimes indulges in black metal instead of the other way around, so a listener’s relationship with âInfinite Graniteâ will depend on how they like their musical catharsis. (The online discourse surrounding the album is predictably polarized.) I’m firmly on board; it’s already my most played 2021 album by far.
âWhat does daylight look like? Clarke sings clearly on the first track “In Blur”. The question is rhetorical, but “Infinite Granite” gives us a clear idea of ââwhat daylight might actually sound like.
Troy Reimink is a writer and musician from Western Michigan.