Album Review: Diagrams – Black Light

By on Thursday, 12th January 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Sam Genders first came to prominence as one of the founding members of Tunng, the glitch-folk act that caught the mid-noughties zeitgeist of combining traditional English folk songwriting with electronic instrumentation and sampling. But after three albums, and citing personal reasons, Genders left the band he formed, for a career in… teaching.

“It sounds like a self-help cliché,” Genders comments, “but getting the hang of the job after finding it really tough at first was a really uplifting experience and had a knock-on effect on other areas of my life. It ended up being one of the best, most rewarding, and most poorly-paid jobs of my life!” Something which he admits has fed through to his new act, Diagrams. “There’s a more upbeat, glass-half-full edge to what I’m doing now. Some of the Tunng lyrics were pretty dark.”

2011 saw the release of a five-track eponymous debut, from which a couple of tracks have been carried over into the band’s forthcoming debut long-player, ‘Black Light’. Genders’ backup teaching career has influenced the music more than he admits. He doesn’t let on which subject he teaches, but the album sounds just like the sort of thing an unusually soulful physics teacher would put together late into the night, vainly trying to disguise his bleary, late-night eyes from the first morning class. Physics is essentially the practical application of mathematics, where numbers manifest themselves in a tangible, quantifiable way. And in its mathematical patterns and inviolable rules, music is essentially physics with added soul: a definition which fits Diagrams perfectly.

As if to reinforce the academia thesis, lead-off single ‘Tall Buildings’ (whilst sounding for all the world like a proper crossover-capable hit single; previous Video of the Moment here) has a precise, bass-led groove and a proto-rap that climaxes with the refrain “Hexagon, pentagon, triangle, square…” A left-brain hymn to the architecture of emotion. ‘Ghost Lit’ is a heavily atmospheric, reverb-y ballad, featuring a feather-light vocal refrain from Genders. “A broken whisky bottle is all you’ve got to show for losing your control” indicates that the lyrical themes haven’t emerged entirely from the dark corner of the room.

The overall tone of the piece is dominated by the character of Genders himself: it’s his project, with contributions from the 8-piece band that has agglomerated to play the songs live. As such, the dominant sound is that of space-age effects from garden shed-age technology, in parts the soundtrack to Open University broadcasts on a Saturday morning; in others, the echoes of songs past bring gentle acoustic picking, underlaid with ticking drum machines and xylophones. ‘Mills’ goes all proggy in the end, complete with vintage synth solo, ‘Antelope’ flits between 7/8 and 6/8 time with abandon, embellished by a small, cheeky string section, and closing track ‘Peninsula’ is chamber pop of the highest quality, but it cannot resist building the simplest of rigidly-sequenced, square-wave riffs into the climax of the whole record.

At once familiar yet distant, delicate yet weighty, space-age yet steeped in the history of this island’s music, ‘Black Light’ reinforces and expands Genders’ reputation as a songwriter and performer of genuine depth and conviction. His journey since leaving Tunng has evidently been an eventful one, but it has delivered up a superb piece of contemporary music. Education’s loss is music’s gain.

8/10

‘Black Light’, the new album from Diagrams, is out on the 16th of January on Full Time Hobby. An album release party will be taking place on the 18th of January at London Lexington and a short UK tour follows in March; all the details of the live dates are here. Suggested listening companions are as follows (accompanied by Spotify links):

Tunng
‘This Is Tunng… Live From The BBC’
Brian Protheroe‘Pinball’ (first track only; the otherworldliness of Genders’ delivery hints he may have studied this 1974 surrealist-pop masterpiece)
Talking Heads‘Speaking in Tongues’ (Cerebral funk, jagged rhythms and freely-changing time signature from David Byrne’s world music-inspired troupe)

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