It was Christmas 2000. I could see my breath as I sat down in the chilly front seat of my Dodge Spirit. The maroon interior of the car was illuminated by the lights of my Sony Xplod disc player. Carefully, I slid the Christmas gift my friend had given me—a burned CD—into the player. I jumped through the tracks: The Ernies, Dead Milkmen, Zebrahead, DEP, etc.
Most of it was pretty dialed into what I was non-ironically listening to at the time. However, one track in particular grabbed my attention. It was moody and electronic, and I could barely make out the words over the thumping bass and swells of noise. It was discomforting, but I turned it up and played it on repeat as I drove the dark, lonely roads of December in Indiana.
When I parked in my parents’ driveway, I ejected the disc to discover the identity of this mystery artist. To my surprise, the Sharpie tracklist said it was “Ideoteque” by Radiohead. I didn’t believe it. Radiohead? Wasn’t this the band that wrote “Creep”? They didn’t sound like that. Right?
A lot of other people thought that, too. The reactions to Kid A were swift and polarized. Critics and college radio stations praised it. The album was a masterpiece for people coming of age in the new millennium. They wanted their own Nevermind moment. 30-something Gen-Xers dragged it: the almighty Radiohead weren’t supposed to make electronic music. That was for novel acts like Prodigy and NIN.
It’s not a stretch to believe 21 years later some music fans are having their own visceral reactions to the new Deafheaven tracks trickling onto YouTube ahead of Infinite Granite, released today (August 20th).
Early Radiohead was guitar-driven liberal arts student alt-rock until it was briefly a modular synth collective. Deafheaven was American black metal? Blackgaze? Blackened post-drone? Just metal? Choose your fighter, music aficionado. Once you settle that one, get to the next question:
What is the new Deafheaven?
“Great Mass of Color” is a certifiable shoegaze jam featuring a few moments where they briefly flash some of the old cutlery. “The Gnashing” features spacey, uptempo guitars that give way to an adventurous guitar solo untethered from the terrestrial. The playful vocal samples and moonlit dream pop conclusion of "In Blur" sounds like it belongs on the Donnie Darko soundtrack.
But they used to make… whatever it was everyone decided they played, so what is this again?
The question is apparent. Something’s different about these songs, so we want to speculate what it might mean. Unfortunately, that question is also not the point at all.
Metal fandom—actually, most dedicated music fandom, but the metal subculture especially—has a tendency to hold bands hostage for their earlier work. Being the first to claim a band carries imaginary points that we silently tally amongst ourselves, and when a band violates the stylistic expectations we place upon them, we take the new direction personally. The way artists perform their craft and make creative choices affect us.
A band that evolves in an unexpected way recalculates the tally, and we don’t like the dissonance caused by a rogue album because it threatens the validity of our media-curated personalities. Often, the move is to pretend we didn’t know new music was out, say we haven’t listened to the band for an extended period of time, or outright disavow the artist while popping the stitches on the backpatch of our jean jacket. This is an overly-dramatic period of mourning and protection: a friend has passed, and we need to see our therapist about it.
Of course, it’s very possible that some people simply don’t like the new songs featuring clean vocals and drums that don’t grind like teeth in the night. No, the songs aren’t played on Euroracks or even surf green Strats in standard tuning, but this album is a departure. As much as fans wanted a nostalgic dip in the waters of Roads to Judah, this album isn’t it. How you feel about this reality depends on whether or not you believe an artist or band is beholden to their earlier work.
I personally don’t believe you can hold a band hostage for the choices they make while they’re still active. You have to wait for a patient to die before completing an autopsy, and the same is true for musicians. Maybe they’ll return to their carnivorous, grinding ways, or maybe they won’t ever sound like that again. We have no way of knowing right now.
After Insomniac—Kid A’s companion album—Radiohead slowly transitioned back into a more traditional rock band in later releases. For all the fans that claimed Radiohead had lost their way on albums like Kid A and Insomniac, they released A Moon Shaped Pool.
In the end, we can’t know what Deafheaven will do. Maybe this is a permanent change. Can you blame them? So many lives were upended by the chaos that started in March of 2020. Most of us changed, even if it was only briefly.
Maybe the horror and panic of an invisible enemy muted the howl and colossal weight of the band you knew. Maybe, introspection drove them to hang onto the beautiful abstractions heard in “Honeycomb” or “Luna” or “Dreamhouse” or “The Pecan Tree” or “Gifts for the Earth”.
Maybe, if you hate Infinite Granite, you can always go back and listen to Sunbather. Nobody’s going to stop you from enjoying it. That said, you really should give these new tracks a fair shot. They deserve fresh ears.
Infinite Granite is available now via Sargent House.
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