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Infant Island - Beneath Music Album Reviews

Urgent even at its sludgiest tempos, the Fredericksburg, Virginia band’s second album draws on a bleak palette to create illusions of infinite depth and vastness.

Infant Island could pass for post-hardcore, metal, or even post-rock, but the first time anyone called them “screamo,” they took on a potentially paralyzing geographical legacy. Barely out of college, the quartet are already the most notable band to emerge from Fredericksburg, Virginia, about an hour away from Richmond, sometimes called “the screamo capital of North America.” Virginia gave rise to pg. 99, City of Caterpillar, Malady, and Majority Rule, bands whose unstable lineups, obscure discographies, and sudden implosions set the standards for emo’s most chaotic offshoot. Recorded at the studio of Majority Rule’s Matt Michel and mixed by Brad Boatright of the similarly esteemed From Ashes Rise, Infant Island’s second full-length Beneath is a brazen monument in a subgenre that typically has little use for canon and longevity.
The band’s 2018 self-titled debut arrived during an international boom period for screamo. While peers like Portrayal of Guilt, .gif from god, and Respire were pushing the genre towards new frontiers of malevolence and orchestral opulence, Infant Island stood out for their versatility, equally suited for a future in the shadow of Sunbather or as melodic firebrands. But their recording budget was in no way commensurate with their ambitions: It was easier to find the celestette, upright piano, and bowed glockenspiel in Infant Island’s credits than in the mix.
In light of Beneath’s sterling production values, Infant Island feels like watching a 3D movie without the glasses. The band sound more daring and confident, and it’s now possible to fully appreciate the intention behind each textural clash. “Here We Are” finds an unexpected nexus between surf-rock and doom metal in its foreboding introduction before burying Daniel Kost’s howls in blue-black tide. “The Garden” and “Death Portrait” are equally locked into militaristic rigidity and spasmodic skramz, visceral and cosmic imprisonment, haunted by bodies buried in the earth and hovering over trees. “Content” plays on the double meaning of its title, tracing a life of complacent cultural consumption before being consumed back in the dirt, bookended by tingling feedback and somber strings.

Beneath takes its cover artwork from John Martin, the English Romantic painter of works like The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, who once boasted that his work “shall make more noise than any picture ever did before.” Like Martin, Infant Island’s bleak palette creates illusions of infinite depth and vastness within relatively compact frameworks. Screamo tends to work in punishing brevity or pulverizing length, but the nine tracks of Beneath are sensibly paced and separated, each movement given enough space to make its point and no more. The album dedicates a significant portion of its runtime to outright ambience, its three evocatively titled instrumentals (“Signed in Blood,” “Colossal Air,” “Someplace Else”) an apocalyptic Neapolitan of infinite darkness, blinding light, and pink mist.

Infant Island clearly intend Beneath as a full-length experience, urgent even at its sludgiest tempos. But it’s no slight to describe the album’s first 20 minutes as being in service of “Stare Spells,” a unification of nearly every variant of heavy music within earshot of mainstream acceptance. Connoisseurs could draw comparisons with any number of legends in the way elegiac acoustic chords and glistening reverb commingle with devastating, downtuned sludge and tinny cymbal crashes: some Neurosis here, a little Touché Amoré there, lots of Envy. Kost’s voice falters just the slightest bit upon entry, a split second stuck between a clean melody and a blackened howl; it’s a presumptive error that needed to stay in, proof of the degree to which the band is pushing itself.

Ordinarily, Beneath would be heralded as the realization of Infant Island’s potential, but it might not even be their strongest release of the past month. Sepulcher, a four-track EP that’s only six minutes shorter than the album, was recorded after Beneath’s completion but released three weeks prior. It takes the band’s ambitions to extremes: “Burrow” is their most propulsive and dynamic slab of pure screamo, “Ghost Whines” their most defiant commitment to paranormal experimentation. It’s capped off by “Awoken,” the kind of stunning, 10-minute scorched-earth aerial view that every screamo band tries to make when they’re completely feeling themselves. Separating the two recordings is understandable—they were produced at different times, under different sets of pressures. Together, they’d be an instantaneous landmark of the genre; separately, Sepulcher and Beneath are superlative documents of a great band that still has their heroes’ propensity for confoundment in them.

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