When I was approached a month ago by UK two-piece indie band The Diomedes about reviewing their debut album Traps, I gave a few songs a listen and thought ‘these are pretty good.’ But when I fully immersed myself into the album in preparation to write my review, I was bowled over by its intense power, complexity and raw beauty. An incredibly well-crafted album, Traps is an ambitious effort with 12 synth-driven tracks, and quite simply a brilliant work of musical art.
The Diomedes began as an alternative electro-rock studio project by friends David Myers, who plays drums and synths, and Mark Champion, who covers guitars and vocals. In their own words, they wanted to “create an album of soaring indie melodies with punk energy, soundscapes, riffs and howling synths.” This reviewer can attest that they succeeded and then some! They finished recording Traps in mid 2016, then decided they needed to become a live act and tour in order to promote their album. As with a lot of music that relies heavily on synthesizers, the challenge was recreating the level of detail found in the complex sounds of their recordings into their live performances. So, the guys employed a sampler, a custom built synth rig and a laptop, and started playing gigs in and around London in the Fall of 2016. Traps was formally released on March 17, and the duo are continuing to play live as often as they can.
The influences for their vastly textured sound, listed in the bios on their website and Facebook page, read like an extensive who’s who of alternative, classic and hard rock over the past 50 years. A sampling of names include such greats as Joy Division, Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age, R.E.M., Chemical Brothers, Radiohead, Phillip Glass, Muse, New Order, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Gorillaz, Blur, DJ Shadow, Bloc Party, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hans Zimmer, Deftones and INXS, along with old classics like The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beach Boys. Whew! And when you listen to their music, many of those myriad influences can be clearly identified. I would add Peter Gabriel to the list as well, especially since Champion’s vocals at times sound eerily similar to Gabriel’s.
There is much to describe about Traps, but one of the things that most stands out for me is the exceptional flow of the album. Each track seamlessly transitions into the next, so that the momentum and power of the music is never lost nor even diminished in the slightest. The album plays almost like an alternative electronic rock symphony, as if Phillip Glass and Nine Inch Nails joined forces to re-imagine one of the great symphonies of Prokokiev or Rachmaninoff. This is not to say the music sounds “classical,” but rather that it employs nuanced melodies, intricate chords and complex instrumentation, all working in tandem to create a rich tapestry of sound that’s consistent, yet never feels repetitious.
Speaking of repetitious, I’m aware that a track-by-track review of an album can sometimes be a pretty dull affair. But this album is so remarkable that I feel compelled to touch on each and every track. So let’s dig into Traps to see what all the fuss is about. The instrumental-only “Open Arms” kicks things off with delicate but ominous-sounding synths that build until distorted, scratchy guitars and percussion take over. At around the two-minute mark, a pleasant synth chord is introduced, lending a more hopeful feel to the track before instantly transitioning into the exuberant “No Sleepwalking.” Sleepwalking is clearly not an option with the aggressive rapid-fire drumbeats and guitar riffs that are all but guaranteed to wake even the comatose. In his insistent gravelly vocals, Champion sings “So what we fighting for? An idea, that somewhere there is something more. So what we fighting for? For our lies, only this and nothing more.”
The guys inject a frenetic punk groove into the proceedings on the outrageously energetic “Masquerade.” This catchy dance track will have you bobbing your head and moving your hips within seconds. The lyrics speak to getting in touch with your true self rather than hiding behind a trap of your own making, which seems to be the overarching theme of the album: “Masquerade into a perfect storm. Shed existence to prove you were born. Hold together all the madness come. Find your feet and then find out where they are. Endings never hurt much at the start.” The upbeat vibe continues uninterrupted on “Gasp.” Shredded guitars, heavy percussion and some glorious synths – all set to a driving beat, make this an especially good track.
All hell breaks loose on “Tension Head,” one of the standouts on the album. This cacophonous tour-de-force starts off with the sound of a very big clock being tightly wound, and a loud distorted guitar making the sound of a motor that’s suddenly overwhelmed by an explosion of hammering drums and frantic guitar riffs. Champion screams some lyrics, then the tempo quickly shifts to a relatively calm and steady beat until the frantic riffs make an abrupt return, before shifting back to the previous steady tempo. Champion sings “I don’t know where I am, where I am. And I can’t tell you that I’m only looking for something.” His closing chorus is rather intimidating: “Don’t get along with me.” All this chaos and negative energy creates a strong sense of tension of course, living up to the song title.
The rather tense vibe continues on the instrumental composition “Part 2,” courtesy of Myers’ skillful mix of discordant and sweeping synths, including what sounds like rotating helicopter blades. Not missing a beat, we’re swept headlong into “Our Dying Glow” – two minutes and 49 seconds of punk rock goodness filled with gravelly guitars, tumultuous percussion and heavy buzzing bass.
Next up is the seven and a half minute long rock opera-esque “Tower.” This epic song has it all: a mosaic of dramatically soaring synth chords, strange sound effects, graceful tinkling piano (including toy piano), loads of crashing cymbals, and robust, multi-textured guitars, all set to an elaborate, ever-changing melody. Champion’s gritty, impassioned vocals rise and fall with the intensity of the instrumentation as he wails: “Higher and higher, climbing the walls. Higher and higher, harder we fall. / We’ll know what’s true, when they come back for you.” The song is so good that it’s over sooner than its seven and a half minute length would suggest and, with scarcely a break, quickly segues into the vitriolic hard rock “Spoiling.”
The ghostly instrumental track “Howl” would make a fantastic soundtrack opener to a horror film, but it also provides the perfect intro to “This Place is Electric.” The song is aptly titled, as it’s a feverish EDM romp that goes straight to the hips. This amazing song seems to represent one last fling before cold, hard reality comes rushing back. Boisterous, grainy synths, shredded guitars and pummeling drums rain down like thunderbolts until the gorgeous but rather melancholy six and a half minute closing track “Wishing Games” arrives – quite appropriately I think – upon sounds of distant thunder and falling rain. Champion channels Peter Gabriel more than ever as he emotionally sings “You are only ever right. You’re the one thing I cant leave behind. So no saving anticipation. I’m always boring, No pulling sense out from a truth or lie. So it’s good bye i’m ready./ Be careful with your wishing games. You’ll only have yourself to blame.” The bittersweet lyrics tie the album up quite nicely, yet seem to leave some things unanswered.