It’s been six years since the last album from Chicago’s Dianogah, and in that time they’ve decided to start singing. Half of the songs on their new, and strangely titled album, Qhnnnl feature vocals, some from the band themselves, some from guest vocalist Stephanie Morris. But rather than using vocals as a sort of reinvention, the band is using them to extend their sonic palate in new directions. Lyrics aren’t simply laid on top of the band’s hefty and wandering compositions. Instead, they are woven into them, like a new instrument introduced into the fold, giving the album a nice sense of both variety and emotional weight.
The inclusion of vocals here also shows just how much the band can do with so little. The core band, made up of bassists Jay Ryan and Jason Harvey and drummer Kip McCabe, use their spartan line-up to make music that is anything but. The bass lines interweave and bounce off each other, with one laying a solid foundation for the other’s noodling before they reverse roles mid-song. And McCabe’s drumming is as sturdy and straight-ahead fierce as it is intricate.
And they take their dynamic musicianship and knack for surprising instrumentation in many different directions on Qhnnnl. There’s the chunky bass lines of “Oneone” that the band speed up and slow down by degrees, making for a track that is driving while at the same time subtle jarring. “I Like Juice in a Shark Tank” is a brilliant combination of Dianogah’s usual muscular post-punk meshed with droning distortion and ringing moments of quiet.
And those more immediate tracks are surrounded by songs that are more patient and lush. With Stephanie Morris’ sweet vocals and violin on some tracks courtesy of Andrew Bird, the band explores some more textured and quiet moments on this record. On “A Breaks B”, Ryan and Harvey pile the bass notes on top of each other, but play them soft, giving the spotlight to chanting vocals and the lilt if Bird’s strings. “Andrew Jackson” puts Bird’s instrumentation entirely in the spotlight. Dianogah keep a steady and compelling beat going, with plenty of deep bass throb, but the keening of the violin is what drives the track, adding a more human element to the song in the same way the vocals do on other tracks.
But these new and beautiful steps forward in texture haven’t robbed Dianogah of their knack for getting loud. The title track is a thrashing, dragged-through-the-mud bit of noise rock, and sandwiched between “A Breaks B” and “Andrew Jackson”, it serves as the perfect storm between two ghostly calms. Later in the record, “You Might Go Off” is a two-minute surge of punk energy. And “Song You Hate” anchors the back half of the record with its angular post-punk grit.
All in all, Qhnnnl is a logical next step for Dianogah, following the great Millions of Brazillians. But what makes it so much more than that, what makes it a big step forward, is how well it is executed. The vocals here may not add another layer by way of compelling lyrics, but they add another dimension to music that seemed to have already reached its limits. We should be so lucky to run into more bands like Dianogah. Bands that deliver just what we expect from them, but still manage to surprise us every time.