Haunting When it comes to naming your band, some people go for long and verbose names while others keep it simple. The latter is what London based JOHN chose to do a decade ago, as the guitar and drum duo are both named John and opted to name their band accordingly (though you’ll sometimes see them listed as JOHN (TIMESTWO) as well). Over their previous three albums the duo has explored elements of noise rock, post punk, rock ‘n roll, and everything in between, but 2021’s Nocturnal Manoeuvres began to showcase some shifts in their established formula. Unlike some other noise rock adjacent artists, JOHN wasn’t just using brute force and feedback the entire time, instead now building some soundscapes and broadening their repertoire. This year’s A Life Diagrammatic expands upon these elements, using periods of restraint and softer textures alongside noisier, in your face riffs. Not every moment quite lands, but the ones that do elevate JOHN above the average genre act and make them a band worth giving some in-depth time.
Despite my use of the noise rock and post punk tags, A Life Diagrammatic doesn’t quite open in the way you’d expect. “At Peacehaven” has layers of noisier instrumentation, but initially it has a much brighter sound that gives off a more hopeful tone before things shift over to a moodier, brooding guitar lead. There’s a lot of this back and forth throughout the album, as the duo might settle into a more restrained cadence where the melodies dance over top of the heavier foundation and then explode into a noisier flourish that reminds you that JOHN can still be abrasive and in your face when they need to. While not treading exactly the same ground, it reminds me a lot of the approach Coliseum was going for on Sister Faith and Anxiety’s Kiss. Tracks like “A Submersible” let the layers of melody develop in an almost post rock cadence with some hints of post punk, and they showcase just how far JOHN has branched out from their earlier days. When the soft vs. loud transitions reach their peaks there are some stunning moments on A Life Diagrammatic, with songs like “Côte D'Adur”, “Service Stationed”, and “Riddley Scott Walker” offering up riffs that will stick with listeners for some time. But there are some lulls, as interlude “Media Res” feels unnecessary so early on in the album and disrupts the flow that “At Peacehaven” had established. Some of the other tracks also let their softest passages sprawl outwards for a little too long, as both “Construction Site / Summer_22” and “Trauma Mosaic” overstay their welcome. Yet even with these flaws, A Life Diagrammatic has drawn me back again and again as the stunning peaks outweigh some of the lulls.
The vocals are another area that invites comparisons to Coliseum, as JOHN’s singing is a bit gruffer and often sounds very close to Ryan Patterson. This works to the duo’s advantage, as the abrasive edges to the singing provides some nice contrasts during some of the softer instrumental sections and keeps you focused on what is happening throughout the album. There are subtle shifts in pitch that lighten things up during certain points, but the rougher edges keep things firmly routed in punk and noise rock on the vocal front. “Service Stationed” brings in Léona Farruġia as a guest singer towards the end of a song, resulting in an absolutely stunning peak where the gruffer vocals intertwine with haunting operatic pitches. With the vocals offering the same contrast between restrained and louder tones, JOHN impresses on this front as well and has plenty of sections that will stick with listeners.
Some of the softer passages feel a bit overstretched and don’t quite make as big of an impact, but JOHN continues to offer layered textures that explore a wider range of musical styles than your average noise rock influenced act. When the duo nails that transition from soft and reflective melodies into booming, noisier moments they really impress, and whether you’re a fan of noise rock, post punk, or everything in between I think you’ll get some mileage out of this album. There’s still room left to explore these layered textures even further, so it’ll be exciting to see where JOHN goes next. A Life Diagrammatic is available from Brace Yourself Records and Pets Care Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg