Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
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Before the internet, it was a lot harder to hear any sort of music that was deemed non-mainstream. What often happened was that kids would rifle through their elder sibling's record collection, run out of bands they knew and find albums like this. This is the epitome of something that a fourteen year old kid would find that way, vaguely enjoy without really grasping it, return it and go back to a safety zone band, then wonder twenty years on what that one album was that they didn't bother to tape.
It kicks off with 9-Green, which would be insane for that fourteen year old because it has so much going on. It's built on funky tribal rhythms, for a start, over which a David Bowie-esque voice holds court. However, the synths that show up don't do what we expect, being both melodic and dissonant, and the backing vocals feel unusual too, providing sounds rather than words. A jagged guitar solos over a swirling organ. What's going on here?
That fourteen year old will leave with the impression that every member of a large band was tasked to figure out something interesting to do with their respective instruments, maybe more than one interesting thing, so that some engineer could layer it all together to create a piece of art as much as a piece of music. And they'll forget it until it starts playing in their head twenty years later and they'll take a decade to track it back down again.
What else will throw that fourteen year old is that Diagonal don't define a sound in that first track that they then explore a little over the remaining seven. Stars Below is as soft as 9-Green is hard, an ephemeral sixties folk ditty with gentle vocal harmonies and a teasing saxophone that returns for a long solo during the eight minute long organ-driven Citadel. Yeah, this is a difficult place for a fourteen year old to start a journey into prog rock.
By the way, if you're fourteen years old and you love this anyway, then I'm in awe of your taste and I'll happily buy your first album when you make it.
Fortunately, I'm not fourteen any more and I'm not new to prog rock. A song like 9-Green remains original and intriguing, but isn't at all challenging now. A song like Citadel is a sheer delight and Nicholas Whittaker's sax is impeccable. Moving from that into The Spectrum Explodes is a wild exercise in contrast, starting out post-punk in a sort of Joy Division vein and then escalating into a blistering guitar solo in the same way that Fleetwood Mac did with The Chain. Oh, and it ends in a krautrock jam.
Everything here seems to be about tone and mood. Warning Flare moves from a gentle tone to that dense blistering guitar and back, amidst a whole host of exquisite sounds. There are maybe half a dozen different moments here where I almost squeed at individual notes Alex Crispin conjures up on the organ. I tend to do that more with solos or the unexpected results of layering sounds but hey, everything's built on notes and these are gorgeous notes.
That there's a lot of jazz on this prog album is obvious early, but Arc has a wandering nature that's all jazz. That leads into The Vital, which is all ambient, a synth cloud surrounding a light bass motif, that sax returning to flit around like a bird, lighter than air. And so to Celestia, which shifts us back to the folky feel of Stars Below, one part Simon & Garfunkel, three parts Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
I found myself in the odd position of liking most of the songs here but not feeling that they made for a particularly coherent album, especially when it happens to be the band's first in seven years. Musically, it's great but I'm not a huge fan of the vocals, which are likeable and delivered well but fit so well on this set of varied tracks because they're so close to generic.
I would like to track down Diagonal's previous two albums, as I've read that they play more in the traditional prog rock arena of the seventies, with a Canterbury feel to them. That's here but not as overtly as I'd expected.