Album Review: Infant Island – Obsidian Wreath

[Secret Voice; 2024]

There’s something in the soil, water and air of Virginia. At the turn of the century, the Old Dominion became the wellspring for a wave of seminal hardcore bands like pageninetynine, City of Caterpillar, Waifle, Majority Rule and many more that would see the state be dubbed the unofficial Screamo Capital of the World, even if the genre-descriptor ‘screamo’ was not one that pg.99 and others were ever that comfortable bearing.

That 20 year old legacy has left a lasting impression and there are a whole host of local acts carrying the torch for whichever nth wave of screamo or skramz we’re on now. The likes of Ostraca, Truman, .gif from god fly the flag (hell, pageninetynine and City of Caterpillar have even reunited for shows and albums in recent years), but arguably leading the charge are Fredericksburg blackened screamo outfit Infant Island.

Back in 2018, their debut, self-titled LP was touted as emblematic of what Noisey columnist Dan Ozzi dubbed the Summer of Screamo, and the band followed it up in 2020 with two releases, the mini-LP Sepulcher and the staggeringly accomplished album Beneath. With these two records, which threw together elements of classic first-wave screamo, hardcore, black metal, post-rock, shoegaze and even ambient electronica, Infant Island established themselves as leading lights in a burgeoning scene: a DIY act with lofty, widescreen ambitions, the kind of band that would look to blow the roof off of the dingy basement hardcore show to play under the stars of the Virginia firmament and have their music reshape the constellations.

With their fourth full-length release, Obsidian Wreath, which was written in that bleakest year of our Lord 2020 but laboured over for nearly half a decade, Infant Island have poured their entire selves in to their art to produce a record that encapsulates and builds upon their previous work whilst lighting innumerable forking paths for them to follow wherever their collective muse should take them next. It is expertly produced by Majority Rule’s Matthew Michel, whose recording and mixing perfectly captures the calamity and beauty of this multi-facted band, and augmented throughout by band member Austin O’Rourke’s studio flourishes, ornate instrumentation, and orchestral arrangement, that add dramatic heft to the band’s metallic onslaught.

For this record, the band were inspired by the state of the world around them, a world sliding into political ruin, environmental collapse, and brought to its knees by a global pandemic that our governments were too short-sighted, too incompetent, or too callous to deal with adequately. “Fury in mourning” they’ve dubbed the pervading sentiment in the album-accompanying press release. It sounds like a fitting subtitle for the album, more direct, less metaphorical. A wreath for mourning, but light-absorbingly black with heavy, deeply felt anger. It describes the sound of the record perfectly, and even serves as a potent proxy for what screamo as a genre captures in terms of pure emotional effect: it’s ferociously heavy music tinged with melancholic beauty; it’s that singular marriage between hardcore, emo and post-rock; it’s the kind of music that thrills, exhausts, disturbs and uplifts, often over the course of a single multi-part composition.

Obsidian Wreath is almost the platonic ideal of this kind of music. Across its 10 tracks and 36 minutes, the album runs the gamut from modern American black and extreme metal to noise rock to sludge metal to folk to shoegaze to post-rock, without putting a foot wrong aesthetically and delivering it all in a cohesive, perfectly paced collection of songs that cumulatively create a sweeping emotional journey with dramatic peaks and troughs, with moments of ardour and moments of respite. It’s an album of two halves to some extent: the first a furious cauldron of molten metal bubbling and spitting and setting the surroundings ablaze, the second, a more atmospheric, dreamy, windswept soundscape subject to the whims of natural forces.

“Another Cycle” comes tearing out of the gates, a shot of pure blackened hardcore adrenaline, all blast beats, roaring guitars and Daniel Kost tearing his lungs out through his larynx. It’s a blistering statement of intent: an uncompromisingly brutal yet strangely catchy piece of extreme metal, with demonically guttural death growls from .gif from god’s Andrew “Shorts” Schwartz providing the cataclysmic denouement the song richly deserves. The ferocity is matched on the frantic and brief (though no less impactful for its brevity) “Fulfilled”, whose burst of gang vocals reflects the feeling of communal outrage. The band then explores different shades of heaviness on “Found Hand”, “Clawing, still” and “Veil”. 

Akin to fellow blackened screamo heavyweights, Portrayal of Guilt and their “Bed of Ash” track on 2021’s CHRISTFUCKER, “Found Hand” pairs an apparently amorphous ambient noise track with harsh vocals, but where PoG was purely demonic, Infant Island sound like they’re engaging in a primal ritual, drawing on elemental spirits, the there-but-not-there vestigial shadow beings that encircle the fire of the album cover. “Clawing, still” progresses like a magic trick of organic compositional prowess with its seamless transition from a black-metal storm to near-anthemic, rousing yet sludgy post-metal, doused in feedback squall and static, whereas “Veil” veers into industrial noise-rock territory with clanging percussion and a Jesus Lizard-worthy bassline. “Veil”’s gradual metamorphosis into a hopeful and triumphant post-rock sing-along with gang vocals from a dozen or so scene luminaries makes for a truly transcendent conclusion to the record’s first half.

It’s in the back end of Obsidian Wreath that Infant Island stretch their limbs and break down the artificial boundaries of genre even further, and ultimately redefine what Infant Island is and can be. “Amaranthine” bears the influence of Panopticon (cited alongside Deafheaven in the press release/album manifesto) with its Appalachian finger plucked folk guitars, building atmosphere for several minutes and giving the listener recovery time from the tumult they’ve just experienced. Of course, it’s a fakeout as the halfway mark sees a sudden about turn into towering atmospheric black metal that recalls Deafheaven at their prime. The blackgaze influence comes to bear on “With Shadow”, bringing shoegaze’s trademark dreaminess into the mix to reflect the pivot into a softer, more hopeful palette: it’s triumphantly rousing, yet underpinned with a melancholy that exerts its own irresistible gravity.

The album’s biggest departure comes in the form of “Kindling”, which follows on from the LP’s brief relapse into black metal brutality on the aptly named “Unrelenting” (after all, a little hope doesn’t make the problems of the world magically disappear) and serves as the emotional climax of Obsidian Wreath. With guest vocals from Greet Death’s Harper Boyhtari and Logan Gaval, “Kindling” starts softly, a dreamy, slowcore ballad for The End Times before Daniel Kost eventually re-enters the fray, his band exploding in all directions around him, screaming about about the uncertainty of the future, the near futility of maintaining hope, as Godspeed guitars wail forlornly into a night lit only by oil drum fires and burnt out cars. It’s mournful and furious and achingly beautiful: “kindling our lonely fires, we nurture our frozen dreams.”

It would be a perfectly apt closer, but Infant Island have more to give. The near-seven-minute closer, “Vestygian”, is the final exhausted cry, a song that ebbs and flows with patient languor whilst being heavy enough to level the Blue Ridge Mountains. As its final moments ring out over the rubble, you will be left with a feeling of contentment, a feeling that there are things that make life worth living, a feeling that was expressed by those dozens of voices on “Veil” when, in unison, they sang, “this world is enough.”

This world can be enough; everything we need to make it so is in the soil, water, air and, most importantly, the people around us. Thank you, Infant Island, for making me feel this.