Band: Diagonal | Album: Arc | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2019
From: Brighton, UK | Label: Cobblers Records
For fans of: Gong, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, The Soft Machine
Diagonal’s 2008 self-titled debut is one of the strongest progressive rock records of the ‘00s. And the ‘00s were the best decade for progressive rock since the ‘70s, so that’s saying something. It was an enthralling blend of folk, prog, jazz, and Canterbury sounds presented with a fresh and modern energy. Their 2012 follow-up saw the band going almost fully instrumental after a personnel shake-up, much to their detriment. Alex Crispin’s vocals were one of my favorite elements of their debut, being far more soulful than most other vocalists in the genre.
I wasn’t even aware Diagonal were still together—it had been seven years since their last album. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I learned about their forthcoming third album, Arc. I was even happier when I listened to the first pre-release song and found they’d decided to reintroduce vocals to their music. The jazz influences on Arc loom large, in both the rhythms and the textures. The drumming is deft and often light, while organ and electric piano tend to be the lead instruments.
“9-Green” opens the album with a funky conga rhythm and shimmering organ. The bassline is jerky and impactful, yet it somehow facilitates a smooth, flowing atmosphere. The song’s second half consists largely of a guitar solo over an increasingly intense backdrop.
“The Spectrum Explodes” is a more forceful piece of music than I would have expected from these guys. It’s not often that guitar is the primary instrument in a Diagonal song, and paired with the propulsive drumming, it makes for an immediately engaging listen. Organ and sax manage to imbue no small amount of jazz flavor into this hard rocker. The second half of this song sees the band shift into a weird, technical riff reminiscent of math rock topped by an airy synth solo.
The title track is probably my favorite on the album. Fuzzy guitar and electric piano share the lead on the smooth verses, while the chorus features an odd riff that adds a sinister subtext. The gentle “Celestia” is a suiting album-closer, ending everything on a light, hopeful-sounding note.
This album isn’t without its flaws, though. The eight-minute “Citadel” drags on and on and on with little development. The lethargic tempo is not helped by the extended bouts of drowsy soloing, and the two-note organ line underpinning the whole song grows tiresome. “The Vital” suffers from almost identical ills. Despite being seven-and-a-half minutes, there’s almost no development. It languishes in jazzy, atmospheric torpor for its full runtime—breathy sax bleats float over droning organ and noodling bass improvisations. Diagonal have proven themselves very good at including jazz elements in their music, but these songs demonstrate such elements are best paired with dynamism.
I’m glad Diagonal are back, and I hope they have an uptick in productivity—I don’t want to have them be on Tool’s or Änglagård’s recording schedule. However, I hope they also temper some of their more long-winded, drone-flavored tendencies. Their jazzy, Canterbury-style prog is an uncommon subgenre I’d love to hear more of from modern acts.