Sunday, September 30, 2012

Birthstones: Diamond Head

Phil Manzanera: Diamond Head

When you think of Roxy Music (if you think of Roxy Music), you probably think about Bryan Ferry’s suave, sultry vocals. Or you may think about the pioneering “treatments” that Brian Eno provided in the band’s early years. The contributions of guitarist Phil Manzanera to Roxy’s sound and success are often overlooked. Manzanera is, however, a brilliant guitarist who was capable of terse, tasteful solos but preferred to use his guitar in layers, processed to create sonic effects and textures.

Manzanera was born in England, of an English father and Colombian mother, and grew up around the world, including Hawaii, Cuba, Columbia and Venezuela, before returning to England for public school. His music incorporates influences from his Latin American experiences, as well as his involvement in the English prog rock world of the 1970’s. His schoolmates and friends included members of Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Pink Floyd.

His first solo album, Diamond Head, was recorded while he was between Roxy Music albums, and includes contributions from Eno, Eddie Jobson, Paul Thompson and Andy Mackay (of Roxy Music, among other bands), Robert Wyatt, John Wetton and members of Quiet Sun, his band while still in school. In fact, while recording Diamond Head, Quiet Sun reunited and released their only album, the quite interesting, jazzy, Mainstream, (which features a song with one of the best titles ever—“Mummy Was an Asteroid, Daddy Was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil”).

Most reviews of the Diamond Head album take pains to note the lack of ego displayed by Manzanera, who lets his collaborators shine. Manzanera’s live album, 801 Live, released the next year, and featuring some of the Diamond Head players, has gotten more adulation, but Diamond Head is one of the lesser known gems of its era.

The song starts simply, and Manzanera begins to layer on guitar effects, strings, keyboards and drums, all expertly played. As much as I enjoy electric guitar, I am ignorant of what effects he uses, but Manzanera coaxes a number of interesting sounds from his guitar. The solos are fluid and extraordinary, but without being showy. And the song is simply beautiful.

Diamond Head, the volcano, is, of course, the signature sight of Honolulu, a place that I have been once, but quite memorably. The song “Diamond Head,” doesn’t scream “Hawaii” but there is something about it—maybe its calmness and beauty, but also its complexity, that makes the title fitting.

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