by Bram Howard
Admittedly, I don’t have a comprehensive familiarity with every pocket of musical culture in Austin, but in my limited travels I’ve found that, with a few very notable exceptions like Letting Up Despite Great Faults or Ringo Deathstarr, local dreamy shoegaze tends to be somewhat limited. We have our share of electronic clubs and goth scenes to fill that echo-y void, but sometimes you just want some hazy pop to drift along to. Recently, though, I was introduced to a band by the name of Pale Dīan, and am thoroughly pleased to report that they pick this banner up and carry it effortlessly and with pride.
Pale Dīan has been a band since 2015, but are just now releasing their debut full length, Narrow Birth. The trio– consisting of Ruth Ellen, DK, and Nicholas Volpe– released Narrow Birth in June, and absolutely destroy at everything they set out to achieve with the album. With equal parts Cocteau Twins and the Cure, and maybe a bit of dark and new wave sprinkled in for good measure, Narrow Birth captures almost everything that a guy like me enjoys about the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Everything you hear on this album mostly centers on a rigid, ticking, electro format, but has an effortless flow to it, like the airy glides of classic shoegaze. This and resonating synth tones mixed with swelling guitars that buzz and bend in loud, dissonant pop melodies, encompasses the Pale Dīan style. “Evan Evan,” probably the most representative of this, and incidentally my favorite track off the album, is phrased around an eerie synth melody that just sticks with you long after the track is over. The synth rides on a simple, almost post-punk drum beat while guitars roar around it. You’ll hear these warped tones that are so subtle, but sound absolutely beautiful, before an explosion of bent distortion creates an amorphous noise pop blob. It’s fantastic.
Songs like “In a Day” take a page out of the Cocteau Twins book, showing off Ruth Ellens’s vocal abilities, further nodding towards a large feature of the dream pop pioneers. The song prominently features a swaying bass melody that dances with the six beat timing of the drums, all while guitars reverberate across the aural space, fluttering in that classic, dreamy tone. Ellens’s voice goes from breathy, mid-range cooing to high, borderline strained, but always beautiful, chants that channel Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal “tribe of the clouds” style. It’s an impressive delivery that has always been a focal point for bands like this.
The darker side of Narrow Birth exists on this plane between goth and synth pop where everything is wilted and eery, but still so danceable and catchy. When you listen to “Feral Bloom”, you’re immediately met with a sinister and angry drone that dissonantly grits its teeth as pounding, darkwave-esque drums march behind it. Ellens laments over the dreariness, seeming to plead with her veiled vocals, creating a gloomy delicacy that I love. The song then picks up to form a groovy dance jam that’s backed by icy synth tones, creating a perfect blend of movement and emotion.
What you get beyond this is a very contemporary vibe that we hear with a lot of “nu” bands these days (“nu-gaze”, “nu-wave”, etc., etc.). While not altogether “new”, these styles are still quite welcome, and Pale Dīan fabricates them in their own unique way that still sits quite well with the listener. “Lonesome Waste” has that twee-meets-electro combo that I originally heard with Blouse, and “The Avenue” and “Mimi’s Magnolia” remind me of a much more grandiose Beach House with their twinkling synths, somber tone, and steady tempoes– a fitting parallel to Pale Dīan’s ‘80s salute.
Pale Dīan achieve what so many bands, with their respective ‘80s and ‘90s musical nostalgia, try to do right now. They basically perfect what it means to blend genres, and set a tone that is so appropriate for these styles of music that I can’t believe I’m not listening to something from thirty years ago. Narrow Birth is a fantastic listen, and one worth anyone’s time. Pale Dīan are now an essential Austin group for me, and have earned their place, with their droned-out fuzz, sparkling synths, and airy vocalizations, alongside their dreamy counterparts.
Pale Dīan play Empire Control Room Friday, July 22nd with Ringo Deathstarr.
Bram Howard is a music writer living in Austin, TX. He also plays in Leche.