I feel like I start maybe a third of my reviews with the sentiment “I love it when bands push the boundaries of their sound and style.” But it’s true three thirds of the time; nothing resonates with me more than sonic experimentation carried by honest performances. I want to hear music that challenges me, that makes me address my own assumptions and opinions, and that tries to show me something new even if there’s a chance I will fucking hate it. I am drawn to music that is defined by risks, and the latest LP by Virginia skramlords Infant Island is as risky as they come, but good god is the payout glorious.
Like its scenic cover art, the sound of Beneath is a fascinating mix of beauty and roughness, of soft curves and sharp edges. The guitars are massive, utterly soaked in reverb to turn wavering chords and dissonant chugs into tidal waves of tone. The bass guitar is deep and grisly, and each note rattles against the pickups like the strings are about to snap. The drums use inventive fills to signal sudden, gut-wrenching feel changes, lifting off into lightspeed blastbeats that have no business being that tight. The vocals are dark, pained, with just a hint of sass at times, yet always delivering intense, terribly honest energy. Even the mix gets me excited, with the snappy snare front and center while the guitar tones echo across the tracks—those pounding chugs in the middle of “Content” crash against the eardrums like Jack Torrance wielding his ax.
The members of Infant Island certainly know how to write some brutal hardcore hitters, but Beneath is a far more dimensional record than just breakdowns and blasts. “The Garden” smatters shrieking birdlike screams with spacious bends and color chords, juxtaposing post-hardcore tropes with crushingly heavy tones. The beastly “Content” winds up its pounding riffs with a final, mourning string section, while “Stare Spells” makes a similar move, taking a song bursting with chaotic chords and shouts and pinching it shut with a simple, sad acoustic guitar melody.
Just as it explores lighter palettes, so too does Beneath dive into darker tones as well. The vocals often reach down into lower registers, suggesting a blackened influence that seeps into the speedpicking of the guitars and thundering kick drum beats. Similarly, many of the album’s more dissonant moments, such as the slow-fuse riffs in “Here We Are” or the opening to “The Garden,” feature odd time signatures or heavy and complex syncopation, using music theory to stress the tension sewn into the fabric of the compositions.
One of the most exciting and daring elements of Beneath is the noise aspect. Infant Island devote a full third of the album to ambience and noise, running the gamut from quiet beauty to a collapsing wall of brillo-pad abrasion. “Signed in Blood” spreads static across the stereo field, pushing low frequencies up a mountain of distortion. In contrast, “Colossal Air” sketches a pretty atmosphere of swelling pads and just a hint of white noise, like a breather of consonance before the penultimate plunge of “Stare Spells.” Finally, the record closes with “Someplace Else,” a tonal collage that begins in a somber, sleepy territory and slowly begins to ooze gritty noise, until the track is finally overtaken by a dripping maw of darkness that suddenly bites the song—and the album—into silence.
Whether your thing is teeth-gritting breakdowns, sleepwave guitar tones, brutal blasting or wavering ambient atmospheres, Beneath has more than enough to satisfy your cravings. Infant Island took a whole lot of risks on this album, mashing both visceral noise and gorgeous melody into their signature brand of screamo. This record touches upon so many sounds and styles without being derivative of any of them, and the result is an utterly rewarding listening experience that truly takes ownership of its space in the world. I believe Beneath is going to inspire countless musicians to experiment, to take their own risks with their own sounds; and I can’t wait to see, and hear, what happens when they do.
My Top Tracks: “Here We Are” and “Death Portrait”