The ancient Greeks spread dominion over songwriting across all nine of the muses, since no single goddess could possibly impart the secrets of music on her own. One of the greatest living storytellers, Neil Gaiman, fixed a folk song at the center of his creation myth, observing that “a song can last long after the events and people in it are dust and dreams and gone.”
Massive Sunray, the full-length debut from the Manchester four-piece Diving Station, is a testament to the imaginative power of folk music, and at the same time, wholly and unmistakably new.
With a tonal palate stretching far beyond the typical confines of the genre, the songs on Massive Sunray are wild, bewitching, and maybe even a little bit dangerous. Fluttering synthesizers on “Lift a Limb” evoke the feeling of chasing a fairy light deep into the undergrowth. On “Fire,” the shivering, rustling percussion could easily be the skitter-scatter of a mouse on its way to a secret passageway in an old, crumbling house. Each song invites the listener into a secret little world, bound by Diving Station’s carefully orchestrated tapestries of sound.
Annie McLuckie’s voice—incandescent, and expressive in a full-sensory way that defies its medium—is our guide through these rich and wondrous musical worlds. Drawing on her Celtic roots, McLuckie dances between songs of self-discovery and playful infatuation, with winking allusions to the old streets of Manchester.
Diving Station spent two years recording Massive Sunray, gradually adjusting instruments, lyrics, and production approaches, and giving the songs space to evolve. This approach is audible, and helps to differentiate the album from countless pandemic projects, which often feel trapped in the era from which they were born. Rather than dwelling on lockdown-fueled anxieties and uncertainties, the band is bright-eyed, brimming with creativity and imagination awakened by long days of isolation.
Lyrically, McLuckie finds beauty, comfort, and connection amidst quarantine through wonderfully evocative flights of fancy. On “My Own Power,” she shapeshifts into a bird, “lifting limbs up from the ground,” against the backdrop of iridescent dobra and guitar. On “After Hours,” she writes through the eyes of amphibians, observing the night’s revelries from their dark corners of the street. Elsewhere, she is dancing by torchlight between her city’s red brick rows and alleyways.
Across the record, McLuckie’s lyrics tend to move in cycles. Several songs settle into a single refrain such as “sparks from the fire / we gave it wood” on “Fire,” and “his eyes piercing through the dark / the torch can see within” on “After Hours Museum.” Such moments are a particular treat; the singer’s adjustments in diction and tone are subtle and beguiling, as if a slight alteration might unlock an ancient incantation.
The storytelling on “Massive Sunray” is built upon a spellbinding medley of folk and indie rock instrumentation, which is lovingly textured and contains multitudes. Guitarist and producer Sean Rogan’s acoustic arpeggios and electric swells are feather-light and effervescent, recalling the production aesthetics of Nick Mulvey and Ethan Gurska. McLuckie’s harp compositions are a dusting of magic which bring Massive Sunray to life in vivid detail.
The rhythm section also shines across the album; George Burrage delivers enchanting melodic basslines and dobra and piano flourishes on songs like “Neck Out” and “My Own Power.” Barnabas Kimberley’s percussion is richly detailed and impressively executed, emphasizing moments of lyrical suspense and intrigue.
It is hardly a surprise that Diving Station took two years to complete their full-length debut. The band’s modus operandi, after all, is prioritizing patience, polish and organic growth over convenience and a busy release calendar. Massive Sunray is the greatest possible testament to this approach, replete with songs sure to last long after we are all dust and dreams and gone.