Mario Diaz de Leon plays with forces in his music that, at first glance, seem opposed. He makes metal with his band Luminous Vault, diaphanous electronic sounds as a soloist, and writes modern classical compositions. Thematically, too, his works explore opposites, growing from both earthbound and metaphysical ideas. With Spark and Earth, he endeavors to bring all of these contrasts into one place and, in the process, he finds metamorphosis.
Diaz de Leon began making solo electronic music under his own name with 2022’s Heart Thread, which wove pulsing textures and bubbling phrases. Heart Thread was also his first foray into bringing his beliefs to the foreground of his music; the album takes its name and inspiration from the idea that there’s a continuum of flow that leads the listener to an intimate spiritual connection. With Spark and Earth, he goes even further into these facets of himself. Here, he blends both his solo guitar playing—the first time it’s heard under his given name—with his electronic music. He also explores another facet of his faith: the “spark” on Spark and Earth represents the Holy Spirit, or divine spark, while the “earth” is a metaphor for the body. The two together serve as reminders that divinity isn’t untouchable, it’s right there in the body’s movement. As Luke 17:21, one of Diaz de Leon’s oft-referenced quotes, says: “…look, God’s kingdom is inside you all.”
Diaz de Leon composed Spark and Earth throughout the past couple of years, writing and recording between home and his studio at Stevens Institute of Technology. He began the process by sculpting riffs on his electric guitar, then bringing in detailed electronic patterns to interlace with them. The synthesized sound of woodwinds and dulcimer glimmer around his thrashing and simmering guitar, forming short but powerful vignettes that feel luminescent and find potency in a blend of grittiness and gossamer phrases.
While he was crafting this music, Diaz de Leon was taking classes in alchemy at the Golden Dome School. His teacher, Eliza Swann, was a longtime friend who led the course, which focused on the bridge between alchemical principles and creative work. It was a good fit for him—he’s spent the better part of his time as a musician studying alchemical texts and imagery on his own and incorporating those ideas into his graphic design and electroacoustic music (see: 2007’s “The Flesh Needs Fire,” for example).
But even though he had a past interest in alchemy, this class lit up a new path. The practice opened Diaz de Leon’s mind about bringing the contrasting elements of music together, not shying away from their differences. Instead of looking at them as forces acting against each other, he saw how uniting them could create something new and dissolve the tension between them. In Diaz de Leon’s words: “The water element heals the binary and creates fluidity so I’m not rigidly stuck between one or the other. The fire element heats up the will to transform.” You can hear this melding in his music: Sharp electric guitar riffs slice through hazy electronics, but more often than not, they link up, creating ecstatic swirls of sound. It’s akin to the duality of Spark and Earth: When combined, the elements can make something even more radiant.
Mario Diaz de Leon creates music in various capacities – as a composer of modern classical works, conjuring heavy electronics as Oneirogen, as the principal songwriter in industrial black metal band Luminous Vault, and as one third of electroacoustic improvisation trio Bloodmist – in addition to his position as a professor of music and technology at Stevens Institute of Technology. Following an acclaimed series of albums documenting his collaborations with classical ensembles, Heart Thread is the first electronic release under his own name. Across two side-long pieces crafted with Max and scored for an ensemble of synthesizers, woodwind timbres, and electronic percussion, the album conveys a pilgrimage from the meditative to the kinetic and back, pursuing an immersive, ecstatic sound that grounds the listener in sublimity and reverence, all while nodding to a personal spiritual practice. Heart Thread, Diaz de Leon explains, “is a way for me to explore sacred expressions of abundance – a technology for channeling mystical yearning or mystical experience.”
Like the journey on Heart Thread, Diaz de Leon’s path towards spirituality in music has been organic and intuitive, not to mention fully his own. Though he grew up without religion, he became interested in spirituality during his teenage years while playing both electronic music and hardcore, and absorbing the study of comparative mythology and Christianity. For years, Diaz de Leon has alluded to faith with titles that strike a balance between formal sonic description and things religiously charged.
Heart Thread documents two live electronic performances, and it’s in the interplay of repetition and continuously changing elements that Diaz de Leon feels something greater: “Improvisation with live electronics,” he explains, “offers me a practice where I am immersed in the sound day after day, with moment-to-moment details unfolding in dialogue with the machines.” On both songs, unconstrained, punctuating synthesizer stabs break through more regimented rhythms and sequences to dizzying effect, as computer-generated melodic variations unfold over formal structures. It’s by exploding, extending, and refracting classic songwriting that Diaz de Leon succeeds in crafting a metamorphic expedition. “These songs have a traditional aspect,” Diaz de Leon says, “an introduction, a verse, a chorus, an outro, but it’s been stretched out from four or five minutes to twenty minutes.” The proof is immediate – a tinkling, melodic synth sequence breaks the silence on “Heart Thread I” with a grounding series of notes that contextualizes the ensuing piece, one that comes and goes throughout the song’s twenty minutes. As consonant flourishes appear and disappear and new rhythms rear their heads, Diaz de Leon draws a parallel to spirituality: “moving through these different structures allows me to process mystical experiences… it’s like hearing divine creativity at play.”
“This is the ensemble’s third album, and practice has perfected the beyond-bleak darkness of their ambience…the flickering emanations from Mario Diaz de Leon’s synthesizer and drum machines seem to leap from one boom to the next.” (Bill Meyer, DownBeat Magazine)
“…Arc continues the trio’s crystallisation into concrete dark ambient and industrial aesthetics…while the end result is still fairly abstract, its haunting lyricism can be appreciated apart from the sonic experiments.” (Antonio Poscic, Wire Magazine)
Since their inception in 2010, Jeremiah Cymerman (clarinet, electronics), Toby Driver (electric bass), and Mario Diaz de Leon (synth and drum machine) have been steadily forging their unique approach to free improvisation, drawing from the realms of dark ambient, noise, and metal to craft surreal explorations of otherworldly sound. As individual artists, Cymerman is widely known as an improviser, record producer, and experimental music evangelist through his 5049 Records Podcast. Driver is celebrated as a solo artist and as the longtime mastermind of the endlessly eclectic band Kayo Dot, while Diaz de Leon has been recognized for his work at the crossroads of modern classical music, electronic music, and metal.
With their 2020 sophomore album Phos, the group established their signature sound, a wildly evocative exchange between Cymerman’s elegiac clarinet melodies and colorful electronic processing, Driver’s invocations of the outer realms of distorted bass guitar, and the anchoring element of Diaz de Leon’s sparse and shifting drum machine and synth riffs. Building from this foundation, Arc was recorded in November of 2020 at the venerable Pioneer Works artist center in Brooklyn, with engineers Justin Frye and Federico Escalante. Over two evenings, the group set the cavernous acoustics of the 19th-century iron factory in motion, resulting in nearly 4 hours of recorded material. The four selections that encompass the album were then collaboratively curated, with final mixing handled by Marc Urselli at East Side Sound.
Drawing from the cinematic and expansive sound of the album, individual song titles on Arc are names of meteorite impacts, with the years of impact corresponding to key events in the band’s history, including their first meeting in 2007, their first show under the name Bloodmist in 2012, and the release of their second album in 2020. At just under an hour in length, Arc is pervaded by the primordial resounding of Diaz de Leon’s Moog-synthesized bass drum, tuned to a low B flat, which is transformed throughout in contrasting articulations and shapes. The absence and presence of the bass drum serves as point of gravity for a cosmos of densities and colors, encompassing melodic modal passages, sparse electroacoustic atmospheres, and feral hellscapes, all showcasing finely attuned sonic dialogues between three longtime collaborators.
Animate the Emptiness is the debut full length by the NYC metal duo Luminous Vault. On their long awaited follow-up to 2017’s Charismata EP, guitarist/vocalist Mario Diaz de Leon (Oneirogen, Bloodmist) and bassist/vocalist Samuel Smith (Artificial Brain, Aeviterne) present a bold and unique hybrid of black/death metal and electronic music.
From their inception in 2015, Luminous Vault have combined the “machine rhythm” approach of pioneering bands Godflesh and Blut Aus Nord with black metal and synthesizers. On Animate the Emptiness, this vibrant fusion is expressed with an intensity surpassing that of the band’s past efforts. Tracks such as Incarnate Flame Arise are pervaded by the slow, speaker-rattling thud of an electronic kick drum, punctuated by Smith’s distorted bassline and synthetic hi-hat patterns, while Diaz de Leon’s guitar intones haunting tremolo-picked melodies and feedback-laden squalls. On closing track Ancient North, melancholic doom metal harmonies sustain over syncopated bass and drum rhythms, giving way to a euphoric surge of major key tremolo riffs. Diaz de Leon and Smith’s vocal lines alternately evoke apocalyptic sermons and a call from otherwordly depths, with surrealistic lyrics that draw inspiration from psychospiritual trials and transformations, full of alchemical imagery.
“The array of enormous sounds and hackle-raising textures on Phos combines the spontaneity of improvisation with the full potential of digital postproduction. The trio recorded the material live during one night in the studio, after which Cymerman and engineer Marc Urselli passed it back and forth, blowing it up and cutting it down. The results feel massive enough to generate their own gravity—especially when heard through headphones. On “Incantatory Sentience,” twanging strings and detonating beats circle around your head like a midnight dance enacted by blacked-out skyscrapers. “Corpuscular Refraction” is even less decorous, launching one blast after another, each more withering than the last. From start to finish, Phos sustains a black-on-black atmosphere illuminated only by the occasional spray of aerosolized crimson.”
-Bill Mayer, The Chicago Reader
“…chamber music that buzzes with remarkable textures and vivid atmosphere.” -Steve Smith, The New Yorker
Denovali is pleased to present Cycle and Reveal, the fourth full length LP of contemporary classical works by acclaimed composer Mario Diaz de Leon. Featuring bold performances by a cast of longtime collaborators, this compilation is an essential chapter in his celebrated series of recordings for acoustic instruments and electronics.
The A-side features two works written in early 2017, which colorfully embrace hypnotic repetition alongside dynamic contrasts and distinctly embody the electrifying post-minimalism that Diaz de Leon is known for. Opener Sacrament is written for a trio of musicians from Talea Ensemble and features the composer’s shimmering, bass heavy electronic production. This energetic piece, driven by the virtuosity of marimba player and Talea executive director Alex Lipowski, makes use of rapid-fire arpeggiations and heavy rhythmic unisons. These are starkly contrasted with moments of reverberant echo, bursts of noise in the flute and electronics, and ecstatic rhythms. Labrys, written for ICE bassoonist Rebekah Heller, builds on the celebrated legacy of solo + electronic works heard on his 2015 album The Soul is the Arena. Built around virtuosic interplay between bassoon and synthesizer, Labrys features shifting and hypnotic repetition alongside expansive melodies and sub-bass frequencies.
The B-side consists of two works composed in July of 2016 which draw from primal, incantatory, and improvisatory sonic landscapes. Irradiance, a collaboration with cellist Mariel Roberts, begins with a series of spacious riffs exploring the extremes of the cello’s register which transform into a climactic frenzy of noise loops. Tuning the cello’s low C down to a growling G, Roberts interpreted the sounds of each pre-recorded loop by ear. The piece gradually builds from cavernous depths into an ecstatic climax of anarchic noise. Concluding track Mysterium is written for the ICE trio of flutist and ensemble founder Claire Chase, clarinetist and artistic director emeritus Joshua Rubin, and bassoonist and current artistic director Rebekah Heller. Archaic melodies, improvised heterophony, spectral transformations, echoes of Klang-era Stockhausen, and the colorful noise of Moog and Ciat-Lonbarde synthesizers combine to create an expansive and wildly ritualistic atmosphere.
Cycle and Reveal was recorded in vivid detail by Marc Urselli (John Zorn, Laurie Anderson) at East Side Sound, Stephen McLaughlin at EMPAC, and mastered by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio. Diaz de Leon invited Melbourne-based visual artist Yuria Okamura to design the cover image and inner sleeve symbols. Sharing Diaz de Leon’s interest in the reinterpretation of religious art, Okamura’s cover “maps and reconfigures geometric patterns and symbols that reference esoteric symbolism, occult diagrams, religious architecture and decoration.”
Recording of Cycle and Reveal was supported by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.
“Mr. Diaz de Leon sells his vision with aplomb on a new album performed by the TAK Ensemble and the composer himself (on synthesizer, naturally). The edgy electronic timbres can serve a range of compositional functions: contrasting dramatically with the purity of a soprano’s sound, in one moment, before finding, in the bass clarinet, a partner in grain.”
-Seth Colter Walls, The New York Times
Sanctuary is the first album-length classical work by the NYC-based composer and performer Mario Diaz de Leon. It was written in collaboration with TAK Ensemble, a quintet devoted to energetic and virtuosic performances of contemporary music. Combining stark rhythms with ecstatic gestures, the piece embraces shifting repetition, shimmering harmonies, and elements of post-minimalism to dramatic and expansive effect.
Recording of Sanctuary was supported by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.
“Longtime readers may remember modern composer Mario Diaz de Leon from his solo experimental electronic project Oneirogen…Diaz de Leon’s musical ambitions extend beyond metal adjacent and into metal proper with his project Luminous Vault, a duo with bassist Sam Smith of Artificial Brain, which marries the pair’s mutual interest in brain-bending death metal and electronic music.”
-Joseph Schaefer, Invisible Oranges
“Dark, idiosyncratic, chasm-born black/death metal featuring one member of the excellent Artificial Brain. While the blackened elements are undeniable, it’s the mechanical surge-and-pull of Godflesh that appears to be the main driver here. From inexorable thrusts and dour synth passages a vast obsidian structure is built, around which tremolo-picked guitar lines flash like jagged forks of lightning.”
–Alex Deller, Collective Zine
“Convivium” is Mario Diaz de Leon’s third album under his ONEIROGEN alias, and follows the “Plenitude” EP, released in 2015. It was developed over a period of two and a half years, primarily through live performance in the metal and noise underground of NYC. Like its predecessor, the album’s core instrumentation is an array of hypnotic synthesizer riffs, pummeling percussion, distorted vocals, and surging noise. With “Convivum”, Diaz de Leon has crafted a powerful and singular work of heavy electronic music.
“Like the rest of Sheen, ‘Bare Arms, Black Dresses’ was edited and layered from hours of free improvisation, recorded and mixed by Jamie Saft. Over 10 minutes, its delayed guitar loops and midnight clarinet moans move from syrupy metallic drone to sputtering, gnashing noise, replete with guitar skronk that sounds like the garbled remains of a busted Autopsy live bootleg.”
– Lars Gotrich, National Public Radio
“Toby Driver and Mario Diaz de Leon bring experience as veterans of extreme rock, noise and classical music, and on Sheen both men make liberal music of electronic layering and distortion. Cymerman is right there with them. On ‘Singing Psalms,’ for example, his clarinet’s voice is first magnified, then pixilated, and then utterly blasted like a solar flare over strata of digital filth and laconic guitar figures.”
– Bill Meyer, Downbeat Magazine
“It seems like only yesterday that NY-based composer Mario Diaz de Leon issued The Soul is the Arena, a collection of three bold contemporary classical works. But as those acquainted with Diaz de Leon’s work well know, he also issues material of a dramatically different kind under the Oneirogen (o-NI-ro-jen) name. Plenitude, an EP-length, five-track prelude to an upcoming full-length, perpetuates the uncompromising sound design first explored on 2012’s Hypnos and then a year later on Kiasma. In the two years since its release, Diaz de Leon has further developed the project’s sound via live appearances in NYC’s underground metal and experimental scenes. The music’s overall intensity doesn’t declare itself immediately, as “Oxygen” inaugurates the EP with three minutes of restrained keyboard chords and slow-building ambient atmosphere. “Collapsing,” on the other hand, wastes little time at all in laying out its doom-laden soundworld when seething synth riffs and hammering salvos of percussion set the nightmarish scene and Diaz de Leon’s vocals—reminiscent of early Nine Inch nails, the words are more screamed than sung—plunge it into a caustic doom-metal zone. And with the singing so heavily distorted, one turns to the package’s inner sleeve to review lyrics rendered indecipherable by their delivery. Though it might seem hard to imagine, “Vessel” is heavier still, with the roar of the singing matched by the brutalizing instrumental design. The title track, thankfully, offers a welcome respite from such intensity in augmenting softly whispered vocals with a glacial synth backdrop, after which “Emergence,” in a nice framing gesture, echoes the instrumental design of the opener in unleashing a vibrant array of declamatory synth statements and portentous bass throbs.”
“The Soul Is the Arena is Diaz de Leon’s latest chamber-music album since Enter Houses Of, and it’s both shorter and more all-encompassing. In three different pieces that collectively stretch just over 40 minutes, he gives listeners two riff-rollercoaster duos and a 20-minute, chamber-band essay of grim, beguiling beauty. The opener, “Luciform”, is a duo between Diaz de Leon’s electronics and flutist Claire Chase (a recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” awardee). Over the course of its 13-and-a-half minutes, Chase’s flute sometimes often carries the melodic line, while the electronics swoop in big, sine-wave-surfing curves behind her. At other points, Chase’s breathy sound is just a complement to the rampaging crunch of the composer’s programming. The fast switches are what keep the piece interesting. The second duo piece is the album’s title track, and it asks for Joshua Rubin’s bass clarinet to go into reed-squawk mode. (Rubin manages this risky, awkward move with impressive grace.) Later on, the instrumentalist and the pre-engineered sounds partner up for a memorably precise and glitchy passage. The work packs a hell of a lot into nine-and-a-half minutes—so much so that you might need a little bit of a breather. Diaz de Leon has you covered on that count with the album-closing “Portals Before Dawn” (on which he plays synths alongside a sextet of instrumentalists from the International Contemporary Ensemble). The composer tried a similar strategy to close out Enter Houses Of, but this longer, more gradually surging and receding composition gets more out of the composer’s ambient fascinations. Diaz de Leon hasn’t put out an uninteresting release yet, but this compact and wide-ranging album is now the best introduction to his refined feel for instrumental extremity.”
-Seth Colter Walls, Pitchfork
“With Kiasma, the New York-based composer Mario Diaz de Leon brings an interesting twist to his Oneirogen project by amping up the metal elements included on his debut album Hypnos. In fact, the fifty-minute set takes no time at all in announcing that move when the full six minutes of the opening cut “Numina” are dominated by guitar distortion, shuddering six-string textures, and an overall death metal-styled sense of foreboding, desolation, and doom.
But Kiasma is far from one-dimensional, and that’s what makes it interesting. The second track, “Pathogen,” while featuring no shortage of molten guitar textures, counterbalances its metal leanings with sophisticated soundscape design of dark ambient character. Put simply, Oneirogen wisely balances the metal and electronic sides in a manner seldom attempted, and the effect proves to be arresting, especially when drums are wholly eschewed. The album is often epic and grandiose in tone, never more so than during pieces of intensity so great they verge on harrowing, such as “Mutilation” and the album’s centerpiece, “Katabasis,” which finds Oneirogen’s lethal chords lurching like some diseased monstrosity across blasted ruins for fourteen doom-drenched minutes. At album’s end, “Mortisomnia” changes things up by adding Mario Diaz de Leon’s vocal growl to the tune’s guitars-and-synths landscape.
Yes, Kiasma is heavy, of that there’s no doubt, but it’s also refreshingly different from the norm. It’s rare indeed to hear someone, as Oneirogen does, using multi-layered guitar shredding to craft nightmarish dark ambient set-pieces. Doom-laden material never sounded as musical as it does here.”
“Like Philip Glass dabbling in trance music, opener ‘Oneirogen’ surges forth powered by intricately arpeggiated synths, tossing the listener around in relentless bursts of colour. The inhuman programming brings a great intensity, flinging the melodies forward at speeds beyond even the most dexterous pianists. From here, it’s clear that Hypnos is constructed of two distinct tones: one dense and dark, the other light and airy. The guitars and electronics will switch places between these roles at whim, yet both sections are so processed and contorted that they often appear indistinguishable. It’s this unpredictable interplay that makes Hypnos such a thrill and every composition as vital as the next, a rarely seen trait among the noisier echelons of electronic music.
“There are moments of artificial ethereality, where plasticized washes of synthetic sound recall the antiseptic calm of new age music, but they’re routinely upended by rapidly pulsing arpeggios, extreme lower-register growls, and rudely distorted, striated tones. Diaz de Leon nods to low-rent horror-film soundtracks (a la John Carpenter or Goblin) but also incorporates whiplashing bursts of power electronics and the ambience of doom metal—all of which wafts, rips, and splatters through these drifty instrumentals. “Faithless” opens like a Tangerine Dream outtake from Risky Business, then suddenly takes a satanic-sounding detour, only to return to a kind of weird calm, like a post-nightmare awakening. Diaz de Leon’s real accomplishment with Hypnos is the unexpected directions the pieces take—they hit you with one surprising shift after another, without ever sounding haphazard or goofy.”
-Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader
“Electronics have been part of classical music since at least the 1930s, the conservative programming of most mainstream presenters notwithstanding, but aside from Iannis Xenakis I can’t think of a composer who’s pushed harsh noise like young New Yorker Mario Diaz de Leon (he also plays in an experimental metal band called Mirrorgate). On last year’s fantastic Enter Houses Of, he juxtaposes relatively conventional lines played by acoustic instruments—some of which are quite lovely—with abstract electronic sounds that can be confrontational, even brutal. On “Mansion” the gracefully twining alto flutes of Claire Chase and Eric Lamb are surrounded by sputtering low-frequency digital pulses, haunting waves of ambience, lacerating bursts of synthetic shrieking, and explosive drumming by Nathan Davis that alternates between ceremonial gravitas and psych-rock fury. On “The Flesh Needs Fire,” Chase and clarinetist Joshua Rubin engage in swooping, acrobatic interplay while electronic noise builds in force, density, and nastiness. Diaz de Leon’s writing for acoustic instruments tempers dissonance with flashes of serenity, and his rhythmic sensibility likewise balances frenetic intensity with near stillness. The electronic element of his music is much more than merely decorative—it’s fully integrated, and alternately jostles, caresses, and dominates the other voices.”
-Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader