It’s slightly misleading to regard ‘Diamond Head’ as Phil Manzanera’s first solo album; not only was it released in 1975, during Roxy Music’s first phase of great commercial success, it features several of his bandmates (Phil Thompson, Andy Mackay and Eddie Jobson) as well as former member Brian Eno. But it still proved an opportunity to assert a musical personality which both embraced Roxy’s experimental art pop and went beyond it, into progressive rock and the South American influences he absorbed during a peripatetic youth.

This Spanish-flavoured culture makes an immediate impression on opener ‘Frontera’, fluently and feelingly sung by Robert Wyatt. Its Latin-inflected pop feel is somewhat subverted by Manzanera’s searing solo and Thompson’s solid drums.

The title track is a showcase for Manzanera’s poignantly wailing guitar, at first interspersed with strings that in time become a cushion upon which he lets loose, his sound enhanced by Eno’s treatment and some adroit stereo panning. Yet although his virtuosity shines here and throughout (notably on ‘East of Echo’, where among others he’s joined by his former Quiet Sun bandmates), the album also bears out his statement “I work best within the group context.” He gives each song or instrumental the necessary attention without overwhelming it himself.

The collaborations with Eno, ‘Big Day’ and ‘Miss Shapiro’, are good examples of this, not least because they could just as well have fitted into the other’s early albums. ‘Big Day’ is a piece of brightly tuneful eccentric pop that concerns the longing of an exile to return to "Gay Peru". ‘Miss Shapiro’ begins with some thrillingly discordant guitar that now seems to prefigure Joy Division, before Eno’s oddly bland voice launches into typically curious tongue-twisting lyrics: “All the peasants in the squares/At the table and the chairs/Set to salvage certain numbers/From the wonder of the Tundra,” to eventually reach a nutty pitch of “Shampoos pot-pot pinkies pampered.” Parodic backing vocals that seem to be the words “Shop steward/A shop shop steward” are the icing on a bittersweet cake.

‘The Flex’ is the least successful of the instrumentals. Its ‘funky’ clavinet roots it all too firmly in the '70s, while the energetic honking of Andy Mackay’s sax seems to be a bid to compensate for the fact that it’s just not a very interesting number. By contrast, his keening oboe and Manzanera’s phased Spanish guitar on ‘La Grima’ create a finely-judged mood of melancholy.

John Wetton, late of King Crimson, is another important contributor, supplying supple bass on most tracks as well as duetting with Doreen Chanter on ‘Same Time Next Week’ (a co-write with Manzanera). Musically it’s a sort of stark funk, while lyrically it seems to be about a relationship in which one partner (Wetton) is rather less committed than the other, reflected in the rage in Chanter’s vocals and the coolness in Wetton’s.

Choosing Wetton, along with Eno and Wyatt, to sing most of the songs because of Manzanera’s taste for what he calls “character singers”, makes it all the more surprising to hear the rather colourless voice of Quiet Sun’s Bill MacCormick on ‘Alma’. Phil Thompson’s drumming is, however, especially powerful amongst a group of good performances, and the track is almost salvaged by the collective intensity of the coda.

As with the opener, so final track ‘Carhumba’ brings the Latin influence to the fore. Apart from Manzanera, it’s a different set of musicians to those featured on the rest of the album, with trumpeter Mongezi Feza giving the piece something of a mariachi feel. Unfortunately, despite Manzanera’s best efforts to inject some bite, in the end it still feels like a blander Santana.

‘Diamond Head’ has some good tracks and some fine playing to recommend it,
although overall the standard is variable. Maybe it lacks something of a cutting edge, but after over forty years it still shines.











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