opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH
Everything old is new again. As the aphorism goes, antiquated styles are being exhumed from the tomb of time and retooled for a second life on the contemporary scene. Along with resurgent fads such as crop-tops and jelly sandals, shoegaze has returned from the nineties (please don't call it nu gaze). The genre, named after a penchant among performers for staring at their feet throughout a show in a state of transfixion, has infiltrated the realm of indie electronic music once again. As in fashion, the revival is not identical to the original (the physical act of shoegazing is démodé), but in vogue once again, are the sonic hallmarks of shoegaze: grand synthesizers, passive vocals, and hypnotic repetitive arrangements. Torontonian outfit DIANA is a little late to this party, only the most recent in a long string of acts to jump on the bandwagon. Nevertheless, DIANA harnesses the renewed vigor of this recent movement, marrying the underpinnings of shoegaze to modern times, to produce their debut, Perpetual Surrender.
A team effort in the truest sense, Perpetual Surrender was constructed through shared labor. The eights songs were penned by project originators Joseph Shabason and Kieran Adams, who contribute saxophone and drums, respectively, throughout the album. The responsibility of breathing the lyrics to life falls on vocalist Carmen Elle. What emerged from this unconventional process is a record built in reverse; a noble idea, but one that is betrayed by enervated lyrics throughout.
“Born Again” was the first glimpse the world saw of DIANA, and what a glimpse it was. The interplay between looping atmospheric synths and subtle bass notes, propelled forward by a steady drum beat and punctuated by guitars, provides the perfect setting for Elle to deliver her strongest performance. She hits a powerful stride during the chorus, wistfully calling out “Now’s the time for believing / Lay your hands on me, I need healing,” in a tone inflected with traces of Cyndi Lauper that renders muscles atonic and sets souls alight. The ensuing saxophone solo is only icing on the cake, cementing the position of “Born Again” in a class above the remainder of the record’s material.
Eponymous title track, “Perpetual Surrender,” is a slow-burner imbued with a quiet sultriness. Elle makes an adequate endeavor to play the part, affecting a breathy tone throughout, and departing for the occasional falsetto. The real star is the saxophone however, which dances around Elle in a delicate rhumba, leading a streamlined procession of tasteful synthesizers and gently crashing percussion. In a trend reiterated throughout the majority of Perpetual Surrender, the lyrics, in true shoegaze fashion, often play second fiddle to the instrumentation. [Ed. note: prior to the album's release, DIANA commissioned London's foremost IDM producer Four Tet to remix "Perpetual Surrender," and it's absolutely stunning.]
This setup works just fine throughout the earlier half of Perpetual Surrender which is saturated with weak, overly detached lyrics that masquerade behind crashing cymbals (“Foreign Installation”), keyboard strokes evocative of the Orient (“That Feeling”), and growling guitar (“Strange Attraction”). The magic wears thin during the second half as the instrumentation becomes increasingly spare, emphasizing the limp vocal performances that Elle gives. If the first half of the album is a dream, then the second is the hypnic jerk that comes upon hitting the ground in that recurring dream of falling. The realization is irrevocable, and any magic that was present evaporates. This feeling is exacerbated by the analog glitches that mar the ends of several tracks, and are especially noticeable on penultimate cut “New House.”
The frustrating part is that DIANA has certainly proven capable of crafting something with the perfect ratio of homage and ambition through “Born Again.” Yet, despite a few solid cuts, DIANA never delivers on the spark of promise they initially displayed. Neither engaging enough to be exhilarating, nor boisterous enough to be obnoxious, Perpetual Surrender simply gazes at its shoes without making much of an impression at all. [C+]
Stream Perpetual Surrender for free at Pitchfork Advance