Lonely Diamond, and Ocean Alley's refusal to water themselves down
Two years on from their break-out Chiaroscuro LP, Ocean Alley are back with another - and a tonne of growth behind them.
Header image by Liam Fawell for Pilerats, taken at Laneway Festival 2020.
At one stage, it felt like Ocean Alley had fallen into the trap of being just another guitar-wielding addition to Australia’s rock world.
Arriving back in 2012 as a fresh-faced collection of members from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, we were initially entranced by the group’s ability to morph a sound becoming somewhat synonymous with Australia’s then-indie sound with mannerisms plucked from elsewhere. Emerging at the turn of the decade, Ocean Alley - in many ways - were kind-of like an ensemble of the past decade’s moulded morphed together into one; the laid-back, indie-pop charm of someone like Augie March matching the lyrical sear of a group like Kisschasy, albeit then twisted with shadings of reggae that made them a distinctly new addition.
Their 2013 debut EP, the aptly-titled Yellow Mellow, gave us something fresh, right from the get-go. It opened with a drum solo; a 30-second entrance that’d soon be reduced to a pace-maker underneath Baden Donegal’s vocal, but an entrance that said “hey, we’re giving you something new here.” In everything they put out following, this sense of unique ‘newness’ came to define the band’s existence - from the drawn-out solos of every instrument that could get their hands on, to the fact that their second EP, 2015’s In Purple, was just as long as some of that year’s biggest albums, bucking the trend of musicians shortening their songs to increase replayability on streaming.
On their 2016-released debut album Lost Tropics, it felt like Ocean Alley were reaching their moment, both as a group of musicians refining their sound to its most potent and exciting form, and as a band quickly becoming the next indie-rock success story (albeit not even close to the success they’d come to have two years later). They were something fresh, an exciting addition to an Australian festival circuit that was becoming too similar in both sound and image, with Ocean Alley bucking trends in both ways (their reggae-fusing sound was a strong step away from the surf-rock explosion then-transforming Australia’s rock world, and their inclusion of people of colour occasionally gave festivals their only sense of racial diversity).
Then, Confidence happened.
Plucked from their second album Chiaroscuro, the song - not even the album’s first single, but its third - took the group to the next level of Australia-wide success, weaselling its way into the pointy end of the ARIA Charts after being the unexpected number one of triple j’s Hottest 100 in 2018, beating out international heavyweights and viral dance hits to get there. They soon played - often headlining - every festival under the sun, toured relentlessly and became one of those groups that proved inescapable; their charm of being a palette cleanser in Australian indie, soon becoming unavoidable in their own way.
In many ways, this could’ve led Ocean Alley down a dangerous route. With Confidence thrusting them deep into national attention and becoming one of the year’s most unsuspecting crossover hits, their work that followed could’ve easily just taken them down the same path for another ten songs - an act that’d see Ocean Alley lose the freshness that has become so synonymous with the group’s continued presence and their evolution across this time. I’m sure it would’ve been fine if they did that - there was a reason Chiaroscuro was so successful for the group - but after spending eight years pushing themselves and growing with every release, would it have been all for nothing?
Ocean Alley’s third record Lonely Diamond - which arrived last Friday - proves they’re one of the few bands to find crossover success but not let it water down who they are. It’s potently Ocean Alley in a way that’s different to how Chiaroscuro showed it, using the opportunity of a new record to present something that - something new, distinct to a new era - despite pressure on the group to replicate the success of their past. As a group that closely walked the tightrope of over-indulgence, Lonely Diamond relishes in its ability to separate itself from Ocean Alley’s past work; a chance to start fresh, combined with just enough time away from the centre spotlight for it not to feel like too much.
In many ways, this distinct flavouring Lonely Diamond brings comes downs to the way Ocean Alley have always written music. As mentioned, every longer-form release the group have put out has felt like a reinvention, or an opportunity to take what you’d expect from them but then twist and warp it into something different. Lonely Diamond is the same. There are traces of Chiaroscuro laden within its blueprint - from the lush wallows of Tombstone to the heavier emphasis of vocals on tracks like Infinity - but they’re done in a different way; the pressure to replicate their last record evidently not making its mark this time around.
“The pressure was immense for the band but also for each of us individually,” the group say on the attempts to follow up Chiaroscuro, and what that brought. “We had never been so exposed to critique like that before and it's not something we ever expected to experience when we started doing this. At times we all felt a bit out of control but it was important for us to go through it together so we can back each other up.”
It was in the group’s songwriting style that this fresh edge seeped through. “There wasn’t a clear direction at first and I think that’s what our music writing process is all about,” mentions the group’s guitarist Mitch Galbraith. “There wasn’t a clear direction at first and I think that’s what our music writing process is all about. We don’t actively try to make our music in any particular way, but we always have this subconscious sense of wanting to explore other sounds which explains why this record sounds different to Chiaroscuro, without trying to make it like that.”
Whether it was a subconscious decision or not, Lonely Diamond proves that being thrown into the spotlight doesn’t always result in the fragmentation of a band’s sound, and after seeing that happen time and time again - particularly in Australia - Ocean Alley’s return should be a teaching moment for those that too find themselves wound up in the rollercoaster of success. At the end of the day, it’s all down to authenticity and still being present in what you do. Fans will come and go regardless of what you do, so you may as well be yourself while doing it.
“We feel our way through it most of the time and keep at it until we have something we like, and it has to feel natural, if it feels like it’s being forced it cracks quickly so it’s important for us to be honest,” explains the band’s frontman Baden Donegal, before guitarist Mitch Galbraith sums it all up: “It’s not really up to us to want the listeners to think or feel anything, and they’ll decide for themselves, I’m sure.”
Ocean Alley’s third record, Lonely Diamond, is out now. Tickets to their rescheduled 2021 tour are available here.
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