Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Secret Shot" by Rare Diagram - The Best Album of 2015 That You Haven't Heard

"Secret shot", the newest album by Rare Diagram is like many movies within a movie. When the lush aural landscape that is Empire Rubber Co. (track 10) wraps around you it is a 360 degree immersive experience. The down trodden beat that flows into musical dramatics feels like a planned escape to a new beginning. It is cagey and audacious. It stirs it's tale into an intoxicating brew and then smashes it against a brick wall. When Justin Chase sings, "If you got your shit together baby maybe we can go real far" amid bluesy strains it feels like the story is over until a cavernous train car of sounds build ever so slowly and flow into the guitar picking of (track 11) the 9 plus minutes of Heat Death pt I+II. This transition is surprising and enchanting.

Heat Death pt I+II literally gives you goose bumps. It feels like a passionate rock opera. You can feel both the musical protagonists and heroes exist in the sounds, confused, running for their existence but still alive. I cannot tell you how exciting the interplay is between the rhythm section and the guitar lead lines but the weight of the emotional gravitas enhanced by the chorus of vocals and poetic words, "How can you carry the weight of the sails with broken arms?" is formidable. It is high musical art and just not something you hear all that much anymore. For me, these two tracks that feel like many engaging stories fused into one exhilarating ride and it maybe the most epic part of "Secret Shot" but there are many others highlights as well.

The songs on "Secret Shot" are written by multi-instrumentalist Justin Chase out of Portland, Oregon and rendered in such an engaging way with with Emma Browne, Chris Marshall and Corey West. The album as a whole is not a concept album but the songs feel emotionally chained together. Many of them start as intimate moments that build or deviate into unexpected places and in this way, many feel like journey songs. This is the case with the opener, Come Home that crescendos so beautifully ("you always stand so still for a close-up before you're gone") or in the cagey pop of Eva that feels more whimsical and fun it its construction. Falling down this more playful rabbit hole continues in the track Ouroboros that has touches of Fool On The Hill and heavier psychedelia. It also has a sardonic bite and deep in the playful musical fray is a dark vibe hinging on societies appetite for self destruction. Scripture feels like the most "songy" song on the whole album. It is rock flirting with honky tonk, jazz flavors.

The diversion of the strange trip-fest that is the (more or less) instrumental Sandshark is quite literally all over the place. If it were an outfit it would consist of red polyester bell bottoms, a denim jacket with ripped off sleeves, a fedora and platform shoes. Nothing matches as the song tastes like soul, jazz and metal in places. Then it metamorphoses into detached voices in radio space. All this craziness doesn't make sense until you hear the next track The Dive Pt.2 which feels like a tonal shift and the crazy Sandshark was the interlude to that shift.  I can tell you that at this part of the album experience, I am thinking that this is all a musical fever dream. I mean, quite frankly, it is either high concept or no concept. Whatever it is, the important thing is that it is working. The hyperbolic guitar lead and blendo pop sound of the Drive Pt.2 is wonderful and makes me think of Be Bop Deluxe / Steely Dan / and Tod Rundgren.

Cardinal with it's shimy almost surf punk beat feels like 90's post rock meets 80's new wave. I thought of Television meets The Tubes meets Franz Ferdinand. Again, the journey of the song feels vast, feels like a full blown movie. As you might be able tell, nothing is predictable with Justin Chase and that is what is so fascinating. Columbia purges all the operatics and get's spartan, intimate and lovely. There is a down home quality to the piano chords and lulls in the sounds hanging in space as Chase coos earnest lyrics. It is a ballad that falls away into such beautiful places. It has a Brian Wilson-esque qualilty. It might make you smile and yearn to see someone who you lost. and it might make you cry. I love this track a lot.

When you start to think Chase's musical / emotional well might just be dry then the strains of Cartographer begin. The breadth and scope of this song push and pull you in so many directions. While it has the sprite light jazz flourishes that twist into heavy pop rock the abstract poetry is always there as Justin sings,  "and if he tells you that the future is heaven-sent, the scent of morning happens now. and if he sells you scripture or regret, the taste of rain is in his mouth". In this way, there is always a sort of psychedelic abstract and free flow sense to many of these songs and in that sense the aesthetic made me think of Unknown Mortal Orchestra.  And, boys and girls, this is where this part of the review comes full circle to the beginning. This is where the awe inspiring Empire Rubber Co. (which transforms into the operatic Heat Death pt I+II.) begins.

In the end, "Secret Shot" is such a special record and one that I think you will appreciate the more you listen to it. I know that Justin Chase, being a multi-instrumentalist has rendered many songs by himself and when you have such mad skills there is a tendency to let your emotional and musical stream of consciousness play out. Sometimes the result can be a million heartfelt puzzle pieces that just don't quite fit together. In "Secret Shot" and with the help of some truly amazing musicians he has managed to create an intricate emotional puzzle that pieces together perfectly. I don't think that any singer /songwriter or band plan to make a great album but Rare Diagram has done just that. It is a fucking masterpiece.
Robb Donker
(link below but I encourage you to go to the RD Bandcamp and listen to the album from start to finish)

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