Having first made a name for themselves performing at house parties and dive bars on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, who could have predicted that Ocean Alley would so fervently captivate audiences worldwide. Almost 10 years since their formation, the band have achieved more than 250 million streams, sold out headline shows around the world, become a major festival mainstay and are continuing to reach new career highs – all on their own terms.
Intuition has always guided the band’s sound, over time morphing between funk, soul, surf-rock, psychedelic rock and blues, and never adhering to the confines of one style. Explaining their approach when it came time to write their third full-length Lonely Diamond, guitarist Mitch Galbraith recalls “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.”
Drawing from the nostalgia of music eras past, Lonely Diamond combines 70s guitar rock, country and western, old school funk and synth-heavy new wave to create a deeply contemplative and atmospheric odyssey. From its sprawling opening notes, the record feels like a seamless progression following their last album, 2018’s Chiaroscuro. On its development, vocalist Baden Donegal says “I think of Chiaroscuro as the younger sibling of this album. The songwriting process didn’t really change, but obviously as people you have more life experience, you mature a bit and that shows in your songwriting and musicianship. With Chiaroscuro, we just went in there and did it, whereas this record we took time to reflect. We demoed, we wrote, we re-wrote. It’s got more depth to it, but not intentionally, it was just a natural progression.”
From the first listen, there’s an ingrained familiarity with Lonely Diamond, sonically reminiscent of music legends including Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. Produced by long-time collaborator Callum Howell at the idyllic Grove Studios (built by INXS’ Garry Gary Beers), Ocean Alley’s classic tones are all there, but more intricately arranged; new instruments are introduced, the production is pushed to new limits and the band has created complete synergy between each track.
Intergalactic album opener ‘Dahlia’ mystically sets the scene. It scatters hints of the wild west across its sonic tapestry to create vivid imagery that unfolds and transforms across the 12 tracks, paralleling two major themes – exploration and escapism. Mitch explains, “It’s pushing forward into the unknown… taking a journey to a different place or a different time that seems familiar or that you’ve been before, and all the emotions that come with that.” Hopefulness is intrinsically linked with these ideas, and powerfully manifests in the bright and dreamy ‘Up In There’. Transcending all darkness, ‘You should know you’re extraordinary’, it crafts an uplifting sense of reassurance that everything will be okay with its soaring harmonies, swirling guitars and ethereal keys.
“Everything that has happened in the last 12 months in Australia – drugs at festivals, lockouts, bushfires, personal stuff that we had going on as a group of friends – that’s all gone into the album. There’s a lot of dark or heavy moments, and a lot of that comes from the unknown, but it has a shine,” Baden elaborates. “We broadened our horizons this time around… we tried to delve deeper into what we can do with our instruments – what you could do if you put it through a bunch of effects or wacky eerie sounds that Cal could slot into what we had already written. There’s a lot on this record that previously we wouldn’t have even thought that we could do.”
Mitch adds, “All Worn Out’ was a real lesson in songwriting for us because from inception to finished product it changed so much in the detail, yet it always had that feel… sombre, slow, reflective. It showed us how you could persist with one main idea yet change so much around it.” Maintaining this introspective sentiment, title-track ‘Lonely Diamond’ engulfs the listener with a wave of melancholy. However, as each chorus emerges, a tender warmth radiates, ‘Suddenly everything’s alright, now I’ve fallen in love with the sunshine,’ before closing with a realisation of purpose.
Grappling with spiralling out of control, ‘Hot Chicken’ encapsulates the seduction and suffering that comes from wrestling with the devil on one’s shoulder. Accentuated by the dangerous edge to Baden’s voice, ‘I’ll be the razor if you want to play’, the taunting driving guitars intensify the feeling to fight. Threaded with echoes of an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western score, the song’s expansive soundscape grows and conquers over the final two tracks, ‘Puesta de Sol’ and ‘Luna’, transporting the listener to the middle of a dusty stand-off in a state of isolation and emptiness.
Driven by instinct, there’s no agenda when it comes to Ocean Alley’s musical output, “We feel our way through it most of the time and keep at it until we have something we like.” Baden states “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.” This chilled authenticity is refreshing, and along with the understated finesse of their poetic power – speaking to universal anxieties, feelings and experiences – forms a large part of their widespread appeal. Mitch observes, “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.”
Having already checked off dream sets including Reading & Leeds Festival (UK), Splendour In The Grass (AUS), Sziget (HU) and BottleRock (USA), winning the coveted #1 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2018 for their Double Platinum single ‘Confidence’ and receiving their first ARIA Award nomination last year, Mitch reveals, ‘We’re in a position where success to us is that we can just get in a room, start writing and pop a record out at any time. I think that means we’re career musicians now, and that’s what we wanted when we started. That’s what’s most dear to us, that ability to play music for life and make a living writing or performing music.” Baden agrees, “We’ve experienced the world stage now, the ultimate goal would be to tour as long as we can and still enjoy it – just travel the world with your best mates and make music, then come back and sit on the beach for the rest of your lives.”
~ Bianca Blancato, 2020