Pity poor Silverchair. Despite the fact that they've now released three albums since their debut smash, the prepubescent grunge-fest Frogstomp, the band still can't seem to escape the stigma of being called a "teen band" every time their name is mentioned in print. So let's go out on a limb here, and try and write this review without mentioning their age.
Here we go: Silverchair's newest album, Diorama, is such a huge departure from anything you'd expect from the band, it's almost startling at first. 1995's Frogstomp, the band's first and breakthrough album, was one filled with huge hairy guitars and angsty, "grunge"-inspired vocals. Then in '97, the band released the more experimental Freak Show in response to the critical cattiness that followed Frogstomp and its big hit, "Tomorrow".
Things looked good. People liked it, more even than the first. Then in '99, Silverchair released Neon Ballroom, a schizophrenic album heavily inspired by 1970s glam and glitter rock. It was equal parts Mott the Hoople and the rough "grunge" scene of five years earlier. Sure, the band had matured. Sure, it wanted to experiment. Sure it didn't work very well. Quella è vita.
Holy cow. Talk about experimentation. Diorama sounds like a totally different band altogether. Daniel Johns, Silverchair's lead singer/guitarist and main songwriter, has apparently been boning up on both his Queen catalog and his Use Your Illusion-era Guns N' Roses. 'Cause there's a whole lot of both of them on this one.
There's so much here to see and do. It's like going to a rock opera, and every number you see is a wild and sometimes-overwhelming trip all its own. Except, of course, that there are no actors here, so all you have is the music. Most times, that's enough to keep you satisfied.
The album opens with "All Through the Night", a hugely operatic piece that borrows most heavily from the aforementioned Queen. Johns' voice soars with a confidence not heard before on previous albums, and he reaches high for top-register notes before dropping back down the scale to start again. The experimental instrumentation, while perhaps a little overboard, is surprising and impressive. At times, it sounds as though a full orchestra is backing the band. At others, it drops down to just three-piece rock band and goofy, swirly synths. The song, as an opener, is sheer majesty.
Gad. That's some damn hyperbole, there. But it's a good song, and it sets the stage for what follows on the rest of the album. For example, while second track "The Greatest View" at first sight appears to be a sonic barnstormer along the lines of the Silverchair of old, it quickly reveals itself to be another beast altogether when organs kick in to accompany the riffing. And the unfortunately named "Tuna in the Brine" is a dramatic acoustic number accompanied by stately concert piano and burping brass.
It's not all high drama, though. The acoustic "Too Much" evokes images of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" before Johns' convincing falsetto takes it to another level in the chorus. "The Lever" is a fine example of straight-ahead flame-throwing rock'n'roll in a day where that type of thing isn't heard very much. And "Too Much Is Not Enough" is a light piece of alt.radio rock, a welcome throwback to the days of Lollapalooza and MTV's Alternative Nation (for those who can still admit they liked such things).
Silverchair find time for even further genre experimentation on the sonic assault of "Without You", a wall-of-noise track that owes a debt to both My Bloody Valentine and power ballads circa 1987. "One Way Mule", on the other hand, is pure Silverchair '95. And if there's any one thing that could potentially bring this album down, it's a perceived lack of continuity, that the album is nothing more than a strung-together compilation of songs from different recording periods.
The thing is, they're all good, making this album a boon to Silverchair. It reveals their maturation as songsmiths and proves to a smirking world that maybe -- finally -- they've found their voice in the world of rock. God knows they've been searching. And lest a promise be broken (see first paragraph), one wonders if it has anything to do with the band's physical maturity. They've got to be, what? Mid-20s by now? Early-20s, at the least . . .