Crate-Digging: Dianogah – Battle Champions

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Southern, 2000)

This album almost didn’t make the cut on a few occasions. You know when you scour your collection, trying to determine if there’s any dead weight, any chaff among the wheat? It was during a few of those moments that I thought long and hard about Battle Champions. Don’t misunderstand – the fact that I was considering as deeply as I was should speak to the quality of Dianogah’s music. But still this album teetered, on the brink – the first time I considered it for the chopping block, I couldn’t even remember what it sounded like. I gave it a quick spin, decided I could see myself coming back to it, and put it away for a while. The second time was probably years later. I hadn’t listened to it since the first trial, spun it again, and had the same reaction – somehow I could totally see my future self needing to include this in his CD collection, but the present garnered nothing more than a cursory nod to how nifty the music was.

This weird respect/indifference thing I had going on actually makes a bit of sense with the back story. You see, I didn’t have a lot of personal stake in the record when I first acquired it. It came in a crate of CDs that some dude from some college radio station was getting rid of. He let me peruse the contents. I’d heard of Dianogah, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I probably walked away with 10 or 20 albums, so it got buried in the pile. Lost in the shuffle. I’m sure there were records in that stack that I wanted to listen to a lot more than this one, so it took a back seat. That’s OK, you know – inaction does not a record condemn. And apparently I’ll gladly return to it every few years, listen to it, remark to myself something about how I forgot it was good, and promptly forget about it.

Actually, now that I’ve written this for posterity’s sake, I may never come back to it. This might be the last time I ever listen to Dianogah’s Battle Champions. That feels so final. Now I hope I do this thing right, give it a good send-off, in the event that it’s our last goodbye to one another.

I keep saying that I’m glad I kept the record, and the reason I’m not just going to get rid of it completely is because of the music – it’s all pretty captivating. Imagine, if you will, math-rock/post-rock pioneers Tortoise enlisting slow-core droopers Codeine to play in some weirdly antithetical supergroup, and strip each band’s strengths so that the parts making up the sum are completely contrary to what you would expect from the arrangement. Got it? So, you’ll end up with the pace of Codeine – for the most part – with the nimbly-bimbly bass machinations of Tortoise’s groove. Sure, allow Steve Albini near the boards. Go ahead. Oh, and Dianogah is a bass-bass-drums trio, which isn’t as low-end heavy as you’d expect. So there are some real lean, stunning tracks to stick around for, such as “At the Mercy of the Mustang” and the I-don’t-know-if-it’s-stupidly-or-awesomely-titled “Indie Rock Spock Ears.”

But between their debut As Seen from Above and this record, Dianogah decided it was time to add actual guitars to the mix. And there are two songs here with vocals. Unfortunately. The guitars are still used sparingly, most notably the beautiful acoustic opener “Kaisakunin” and late-album minute-long bridge track “Work.” And while the vocals aren’t insulting, as it were, they’re kind of disappointing, I guess. Jay Ryan is a much better bassist than singer/songwriter, and I think this is why he rarely sings. He resembles Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan in timbre, but with even less tone. And the lyrics – let’s just say that Dianogah’s presence on Southern Records probably exposed them to all the lousy Chicago emo poetry, as bad metaphors and transitions taken from the scrawlings in a college notebook sound positively shoehorned into the songs. Happily, the music darts in all directions and mostly detracts from what comes out of Ryan’s mouth – he seems much more comfortable when he sticks to his strengths.

As a fan of midwest math/post rock from the 1990s, I’m pleased that Dianogah fits neatly into that category, and yet branches out from it with a dynamic and unique sound. And even if they never cross my playlist again, I’ll hang on to them in the hope that I find occasion to give them one more spin.

Oh, forgot to mention. A “dianogah” is a monster from Star Wars. Like the one in the garbage masher on the detention level. No, shut them all down!

RIYL: Codeine, Tortoise, Karate

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