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The Sunbathers Turn to the Light: Deafheaven Is Back, and Clearer Than Ever

The most popular new metal band of the past decade is set to release ‘Infinite Granite,’ an album that finds them with a new sound and new state of mind. Are fans ready to embrace the changes?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Visualize success: Deafheaven are a month away from releasing their new album and they’ve already gone platinum. After a week in London, frontman George Clarke has returned to Los Angeles rocking a silvery-white shock of hair. “I just got back from solving the Da Vinci Code,” he jokes, adding that he’s actually Russell Crowe’s imaginary friend from A Beautiful Mind. But in truth, the band was doing a video shoot for “In Blur,” the final single from their fifth LP, Infinite Granite—a dramatic pivot for the revered metal band into zero-gravity shoegaze, startling and bright as Clarke’s new ’do. He agreed to the dye job knowing it would be a temporary thing, and when we connect two weeks later, he’s already given himself a haircut to expedite the process of getting back to his normal chestnut color. By the time you read this, Deafheaven’s blonde ambition phase will be over. Just about everything else about the band will be completely different.

I’m reflexively inclined to say that Infinite Granite is the most polarizing metal album in recent memory, even though it hardly sounds like a metal album at all. Or, it’s the most polarizing metal album in recent memory because it hardly sounds like a metal album at all. If the guitars on previous Deafheaven albums flowed in black and iridescent reds like molten lava, they’re all now chilled to liquid nitrogen, rendered in exclusively deep blues and neon pinks by the guy who produced M83’s “Midnight City.” The blast beats have been swapped out for skittering, pitter-pat snare patterns. There are maybe 20 total seconds of screaming, and most of them come at the very end of the last song. Otherwise, Clarke is doing clean vocals for the first time in his life, as a 32-year-old in a band whose every deviation from metal orthodoxy is obsessively debated. He had never fronted a group prior to Deafheaven, and though he played bit parts in high school productions of Bye Bye Birdie and Grease, he does not reveal whether his blackened howl was ever applied to “Put on a Happy Face.” Clarke had never even done clean karaoke; “It’s always been a historically drunken thing,” he jokes. “I brought lots of yelling to the table.”

Also, I probably don’t need to be so vague as to describe Infinite Granite as the most polarizing metal album “in recent memory.” It’s the most polarizing metal album since the last Deafheaven album, which was the most polarizing metal album since the one before that. There isn’t a single heavy rock band going that can occupy the central point of conversation among critics and casual indie rock fans—major-label mega acts like Mastodon or Slipknot are often seen with a detached sense of bemusement, whereas lifers like Boris, Baroness, Sunn O))), or Sleep are treated with outright reverence. Don’t get me wrong, the cheers are cumulatively far louder than the boos, but Deafheaven has long carried a perception of being a metal band for people who have space in their lives for only one metal band.

Deafheaven owe this status largely to 2013’s Sunbather. After an auspicious debut two years earlier with Roads to Judah, Sunbather announced its bold intentions with an entirely pink cover, featuring a bespoke typeface developed by Touché Amoré’s Nick Steinhardt, who has also provided art direction for Britney Spears and P!nk; in 2014, you could buy the Sunbather font for $30 a pop. Sunbather wasn’t entirely without precedent. After all, the concept of “blackgaze”—the ugliness of black metal and the expansive, lush sensuality of shoegaze—had been pioneered nearly a decade prior by French band Alcest, whose mastermind Neige actually appeared on Sunbather’s “Please Remember,” reading a passage from the Nietzsche-indebted 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Boris’s titanic doomgaze progenitor from 2006 is literally called Pink, with a cover to match.

But a bigger, more pernicious point of contention lay with the fact that Deafheaven were unusually handsome for an American metal band. When critic Brandon Stosuy suggested that the band looked like they stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, it might have seemed like a preemptive strike at metal fans who equate corpse paint with authenticity. It was unintentionally based in truth—when Deafheaven first developed a relationship with their manager Cathy Pellow, she supposedly pushed Clarke to consider modeling. “I could get you a Calvin Klein campaign in five minutes—you’d never have to worry about money again,” she claimed in 2015.

Metacritic determined that Sunbather was the most critically acclaimed album of any kind in 2013, comfortably topping the likes of Beyoncé, Run the Jewels, Vampire Weekend, and Kanye West. It held unusually rarefied spots on mainstream year-end lists for a metal band, clocking in at no. 6 on Pitchfork, no. 2 at Stereogum, and no. 3 at The AV Club. Chalk it up to any number of considerations—the increasingly marginalized place of any form of guitar music that doesn’t involve Travis Barker, the minimal influence of music publications in the streaming era—but it’s not hyperbole to say that there will never be another metal album that will dominate the conversation like Sunbather. Nothing will ever come close and nothing really has since 2013, aside from other Deafheaven albums. Of the 500 albums represented in the past decade of the review-tracking website Album of the Year’s aggregated best-of lists, Deafheaven was the “only non-legacy heavy act represented,” according to a survey done by Alexander Rudenshiold, a University of Virginia media studies grad student and guitarist in the excellent post-screamo band Infant Island—whether or not they’re influenced by Deafheaven, it’s a lot easier for indie listeners to grasp what they do in a post-Sunbather context.

2015’s New Bermuda tweaked Deafheaven’s sound enough to remain one step ahead of the countless bands that created their sound in the image of Sunbather immediately afterward. Three years later, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love added “Grammy-nominated” to Deafheaven’s list of accolades. I recall being blown away by those albums on first listen, yet most of the time when I wanted to experience the Deafheaven sound, I’d go back to Sunbather. I felt a creeping sense that Deafheaven would run the risk of becoming something even less desirable than a band reflexively hated by gatekeepers—one that gets taken for granted.

Turns out that Deafheaven themselves recognized that danger during a 2019 run with Baroness, a Savannah psych-sludge powerhouse that have managed to constantly evolve in interesting ways while staying true to an established format: Their most recent LP, Gold & Grey, honored their color-coded album titles while integrating a new guitarist and the guy who’s mixed Tame Impala and produced MGMT. It seems that Deafheaven were starting to consider how they could similarly play the long game. Clarke admits to “feeling that sense of ‘over it’” throughout the tour. “I think I’ve hit a wall, there’s not a whole lot in this fashion that I can do beyond this, I’ve reached the end of my ability here.”

Five months later, they were set to head out to Europe with Touché Amoré with an instrumental of Infinite Granite centerpiece “Lament for Wasps” essentially finished. Its luminescent guitar layers recalled certain parts of past Deafheaven songs—the meditative midsection of Sunbather closer “The Pecan Tree,” an overt “Champagne Supernova” homage that closed out New Bermuda’s “Gifts for the Earth”—only now, it was eight minutes of that. “I remember that it was apparent that this record was gonna be in this lane,” Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy recalls, rebutting the presumption that he or Clarke had to stage an intervention on behalf of clean vocals and chains of chorus pedals. “There was never a moment where George was like, ‘I gotta break this to you,’” he laughs.

When “Great Mass of Color” dropped as the lead single in June, the comparisons were drawn from way the fuck outisde of Deafheaven’s typical sphere: The neatly layered guitar lattices evoked the chillaxed emo of Turnover, Clarke’s vocals the keening yelp of AFI’s Davey Havok. The echoes of heavy shoegaze acts like Catherine Wheel and Slowdive raise the question of why they didn’t just call it “Great Mass of Colour.” And yet, even as Deafheaven fully commit to the bit for nearly an hour, the whole experience inverts their sound rather than reinvents it completely. On past albums, their more accessible influences lingered around the edges, such as post-rock dorm-room staples Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós, and Mogwai. Pitchfork described Ordinary Corrupt Human Love as an “excellent Smashing Pumpkins album,” likely prompted by the grand piano that began “You Without End.”

These are now at the forefront of the expansive and frankly gorgeous singles “The Gnashing” and “In Blur,” which are still given the shape and aching sentiment of a typical Deafheaven song. The instrumental is called “Neptune Raining Diamonds” because it’s based on a true story and it actually sounds like that. Such a shift is hardly unheard of in contemporary heavy music; over the past two months, Deafheaven’s new music have inspired compendia such as “The Heavy Music to Shoegaze Pipeline” and “30 Essential Songs From the Shoegaze/Heavy Crossover,” and they’re perhaps the only band who merit inclusion twice.

The twinkling, emotive underpinnings of Deafheaven are fully teased out by a guy who knows that realm better than anyone else. Justin Meldal-Johnsen is currently serving as the bassist and musical director for St. Vincent and was in Beck’s touring band for decades. But that wasn’t the reason “Deafheaven produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen” made me jump out of my seat when I first got an advanced copy of Infinite Granite. Justin Meldal-Johnsen is a guy who gets hired by bands who want to sound a little more like M83’s titanic electro-pop opus Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, a list that includes emo-pop figureheads Tegan and Sara, Paramore, and Jimmy Eat World (sadly, Clarke and McCoy have not yet heard Integrity Blues). Though the duo were initially drawn to Meldal-Johnsen’s conceptual, grandiose approach, from the very first day, Clarke recalls him saying, “I won’t lie, I won’t blow smoke up your ass,” during their first studio session—and that was perhaps the last straightforward thing they heard from him. McCoy recalls a more typical exchange working through an embryonic version of “Lament for Wasps.” “I’m in this room and there’s a really great vibe and I’m going on this journey with you and then the chorus hits and you’re telling me to get out of this room,” McCoy says trying to imitate Meldal-Johnsen’s inflections and not break down laughing. “And I don’t know why you’re doing that, I like being in this room.” McCoy also identifies “I just don’t believe you on that lead” as the most cutting criticism he received during the recording. “He can be nothing but this headbanging Afro back and forth,” Clarke says. “And then he’s staring at a computer and saying, ‘I can’t vibe that.’”

This image stuck with Deafheaven after Infinite Granite was completed—the listener listlessly gazing into their screens, shrugging at the vibe. Clarke and McCoy allow that they have to be “kinda bull-headed” during their writing, refusing to share their progress with anyone not directly involved as a creative contributor. With Infinite Granite, they put a premium on clarity as the animating artistic goal—since people are going to be able to understand the lyrics without having to consult the album insert, it’s best to make them count. Upon the release of “The Gnashing,” the second single and clear point of no return for Deafheaven, Clarke wrote on his Instagram: “I thought a lot about new parents, state violence and the idea of taking care of who takes care of you.” “Can I accept I’m real?” Clarke whispers during “Great Mass of Color,” which tempts a link to his most quoted lyrics from “Dream House”—a drunken text-message exchange transcribed in full: “I’m dying,” “Is it blissful?” “It’s like a dream.” “I want to dream.”

There’s an implied emotional cleansing within the exfoliated sound of Infinite Granite that becomes explicit on “Villain.” “Inform my mother’s people / 30 months is war / Dealing with the blood of 30 years well worn,” Clarke sings, and it’s easy to read between the lines if you recognize the reasons people might count months. Clarke confirms that he wrote this song upon turning 30, with two and a half years of sobriety. “Alcoholism and drug addiction are huge in my family throughout multiple generations, and I’ve been examining that a lot in the past few years,” he explains, describing “Villain” as a song about the weight of carrying the past.

Clarke’s voice betrays a bit of frustration as he compares the experience of making new Deafheaven music to those of his friends who work in cinema: “When we go to promote new material, we have to be confronted with our old material, as opposed to film, where you’re usually thinking about your foremost project.” Clarke and McCoy still relate to the ethos that inspired Sunbather, if not necessarily the inexperience of the people who made it. That album’s most startling moment occurs on the notorious interlude “Windows,” which includes a recording of McCoy, frustrated and broke, trying to buy opiates in a street deal. I’m reminded of all of the media I’ve consumed over the years where the possibility of one end of a drug deal wearing a recording device might get somebody killed, but also, the vulnerability required of sharing that experience with the world. This aspect of Deafheaven has always struck me as the most compelling evidence for how they’ve managed to transcend their genre in ways that similarly situated metal acts hadn’t in the past. “We’ve kept this emotional availability and honesty in our music, and I think we’re very heart on our sleeves in general,” Clarke says. Indeed, Sunbather is one of my favorite albums ever made, and I don’t really know any of the lyrics, just that it encompassed the totality of their base and transcendent desires; likewise, the grimmer tone of New Bermuda encapsulated the disillusioned, druggier cloud surrounding the band after they moved to Los Angeles.

“Villain” is the only time on the record that Clarke references his sobriety directly, despite it being the most important shift in the band’s dynamic since Sunbather; McCoy has also been sober for several years. Infinite Granite isn’t an overt sobriety record, but one that fits into a larger conversation the band has about their approach to their relationships, conception of ambition, and personal evolution after turning 30. There’s a heartening embrace of beginner’s mind within the Deafheaven universe—Clarke developed his interest in photography over the past few years, culminating in his contribution to Touché Amoré’s most recent album Lament. McCoy began surfing at 30 and now goes to the ocean every day if his schedule permits. “I realized even sucking at it was so much fun,” he laughs. “I encourage everyone to go.”

Infinite Granite is Deafheaven’s first release on Sargent House, the label and management company initially founded by Pellow in 2006 as an avenue to put out Rx Bandits albums. The label’s 2021 release slate suggests there’s something rejuvenating in the air around Sargent House these days. In May, Lukas Frank released an album of sweeping, gothic pop as Storefront Church, a document of his embrace of “community vs. staying isolated.” His collaborative relationship with DIIV’s Cole Smith began when they met as newly sober participants in a Magic: The Gathering tournament (DIIV is also managed by Pellow). Frank and Clarke also went to the same climbing gym in Los Angeles. And then there’s the bonkers health regimen that resulted in the bionic jock jams of the Armed’s ULTRAPOP. Regardless of how the world at large accepts Infinite Granite, the band finds themselves very much at home among peers making heavy music with a lightness of spirit. “History has shown us the moment you try to make something that you think people will like is when most bands shoot themselves in the foot,” McCoy firmly states.

The duo repeatedly reference “The Leap” taking place here. It’s a familiar term for music fans, one where a band goes from being Pretty Good to Great or makes their ambitions for greater commercial success abundantly clear. “As long as we stay [being] this touring machine, there’s always a new reward around the corner,” Clarke notes, focusing on relatively modest goals like a more immersive live experience to suit their proggier ambitions. Guitarist Shiv Mehra has made headway, building a fortress of synths that Clarke describes as a “Jonny Greenwood situation.”

But in this circumstance, “The Leap” is referring to everyone else. Lest this seem overly neurotic for a band with Deafheaven’s track record, here’s the introduction of Stereogum’s review of Infinite Granite, which ran four days prior to its release: “Let me be frank: I expected this album, Infinite Granite, to suck.” This from a self-described Deafheaven stan who acknowledges the possibility that he’d either blindly rave over anything they do or feel a profound sense of betrayal. A few paragraphs later: “Then I actually listened to Infinite Granite. And then I had to scratch all that.”

McCoy admits that it’s hard not to have rabbit ears during this part of the album cycle and that he needs to enlist outside help to run interference: “My mom trolls Reddit for this stuff. I have to tell her not to send screenshots, just send the vague overall thing.” Clarke confesses that he’s usually the one who needs to be talked off the ledge in these conversations, which have been happening “over and over again” for the past six months. “There is a period after you get finished with the record, there’s so much fervor and excitement and stress, and then you show it to a couple people and it’s cool,” he explains. “But then we take time apart, a week goes by, and I text Kerry … ‘Is this record good? Is our audience … they’re gonna make the leap, right? They understand us enough to understand the record, this is true, right?’” Clarke pivots back to the present tense, having fully committed to the bit of clean vocals and an even cleaner look. “It’s a moot point—we’re locked in, the budget is spent.” And the dye is cast.

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.


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