It’s easy to get lost in the 80s. All of the synths, melodic power rifts and emotive lyrics seem to sweep you away like a soft pastel-hued tidal wave before you realise what’s actually going on. But what makes the difference between an excellent contemporary homage versus kitsch pastiche? Perhaps, its the inclusion of often overlooked instruments. In the case of Diana, the Toronto four-piece supergroup-of-sorts, this would be the saxophone. For their latest album Perpetual Surrender, the group offers up a VHS musical journey with sprawling, expansive sounds and synth hooks made all the better with blaring sax solos paired with vocalist Carmen Elle’s soft, warming exclamations. It’s an album with so many dense layers, you can’t help but become hypnotised.
Co-founded by Joseph Shabson, lately the sax player for Vancouver’s excellent Destroyer, along with members of The Hidden Cameras, and Army Girls (where Carmen Elle originated), DIANA have created a signature sound that resembles a particularly well curated ‘Best of 80s’ collection. Montreal and Toronto bands have a knack for playing around with the non sequitur, and DIANA accurately distil the 80s (and OK, early 90s) down to their bare essence, playing around with strange, distant vocals over the top of dreamy, slow-motion beats that embrace an outerwordliness.
Opening track ‘Foreign Installation’ moves slowly, ending with a sexy guitar solo while ‘That Feeling’ is rich with circumambulating synths that intrigue and guide the song. Reluctantly, its title track can most accurately be described as ‘chillwave’, with Shabson’s sensual saxophone smoothness and tumbling drums that make you want to run slow-motion on a Venice, California beach. The album’s guitar and sax solos celebrate that overblown, self-indulgent excess, but paired with an eerie, hauntingly quiet backdrop, they sound controlled, even elegant.
‘Strange Attraction’ is a haunting Cocteau Twins-style number with a growling guitar, while ‘Anna’ moves DIANA to the dark, goth side, with minor chords lending the track an unconventional propeller. Proceedings giving a unique edge by way of Carmen Elle’s crystalline vocals which continue to deliver a strong and unique performance throughout Perpetual Surrender’s eight tracks, no more so than on ‘Born Again’, which remains as the stand out tune, where vocalist Elle effortlessly dances around tasteful synthesizers before marvellously switching levels for a chorus. The same can be said for the cautious ‘New Home’, which feels like a warm bubble bath.
Perpetual Surrender is an ambitious album that delivers on numerous levels, though it can sometimes sound a bit like a TV stuck on constant re-run. But just as that’s enjoyable in its own way, so are DIANA in theirs.