The subject of death is a strange one in music. After all, none of us alive have personally experienced it, by the very virtue that we’re still alive. We might have been close to it, or lost loved ones, but we’ve not actually gone through the process ourselves. So perhaps uniquely for a subject used so much in music, it is always a second-hand view.
So when Michael Holloway noted in a recent interview with amodelofcontrol.com, that this album was ostensibly about death, I have to say I raised my eyebrows at the idea. After all, what was there to say about this subject that hadn’t already been attempted hundreds of times before?
Clearly I was wrong to doubt him. This isn’t an album about death, really – it’s an album about the fear of death. So rather than a morose, downbeat album, it is full of fear, of terror, of the fight against the inevitable, and as such teems with life – and it is an essential, extraordinary listen. Right from the off, on the elegant Expiring Time, it is clear that this is an album whose subject is invoked as much by the sonic sculptures on display as much as the words. It invokes the confusion and fear that, I’d imagine, would be at the heart of anyone’s thoughts as they prepare to die – that is, if they have any notice as such, of course. It should also be noted, that this is not a romantic, or religious, take on death here. This album is rooted in the grim reality, the emotions, the feelings we have to deal with when dealing with death, and the fear of everything we’ve done just….ending.
One passage from the interview just keeps coming back to me, too.
“It’s basically the opposite of Rag Doll Blues, because it explores elderly life, dying from natural causes or “old age,” and basically is me confronting all of my fears about that stage of life. The central question is: what if the last part of your life is the worst part of your life? And, from that: if your memory is failing (due to old age), and your body is failing (old age again), then it follows that your final days will be, in a sense, the only thing you actually know of life. You will exit life with that experience being the only thing you take with you. Which is a horrifying notion, and I wanted to explore it.”
That feeling is perhaps most apparent in Gathering Fear, a song that almost imperceptibly gathers pace, with thundering drums and heavily distorted vocals swirling into a dense vortex where the end, or at least the sense thereof, is nigh – the core question being “Do you want to stay alive…? Is it your choice to decide?“, one delivered in an unnerving, inhuman voice. The vocals are delivered in three or four distinct effects, seemingly bringing to the surface a complex internal monologue, the chaos and panic inherent in the protagonist’s thoughts brought to bear.
Downpour tries to follow that, and is a remarkable bright point in the murk of feelings here. While apparently also about preparing for death, the synth hooks cascade like rainbows, and Holloway’s voice is broadly undistorted, which removes some of the foreboding. Unlike the previous track, this one seems to be about the idea of being prepared for death, and not being scared of it.
The centrepiece of the album, though, is the astonishing, nine-minute epic Misericordia. Latin for mercy, thereabouts, it appears to be from the point of view of someone on their deathbed, barely lucid and only fleetingly noticing grieving relatives coming by to say very little. “Did they even ask you / if you wanted to stay?” asks Holloway, even though the question is pointless, as death is inevitable. Musically, Holloway is accompanied by sequenced choirs, as if shining a light on the subject, while the stately rhythms (and pinpoint synth programming) bring to mind In Strict Confidence of the Love Kills era, where love and death were also intertwined to amazing effect.
That the album doesn’t just tail off after that is just something else to amaze here. Blood Lesson takes a while to pick up the baton, but it does with a beat that seems to be echoing back from the walls, while Holloway howls the pain of impending death from the depths and continues the theories from the previous – but sure in mind this time that they are not ready to let go. Seeing Red sees the pulse-rate skyrocket as the drum beats become ever more urgent, ever faster, and various speech samples weave in and out of the mix, over the top of each other, as concentration goes and the mind goes haywire.
The album closes with the resigned beauty of At Rest, twinkling synths accompanying Holloway as he asks what there will be when we die. Will there be better things to enjoy, a better afterlife, if you will? As the song peters out, though, it is made clear that there is nothing. The end. There can be all the hope all you like, but the reality is that we have to deal with what we’ve got. Or in other words, make the best of life while you can – those are the thoughts that come through my head as the last ten seconds descend into silence.
It’s a defiant take on such an emotive subject, and maybe brave, but somehow, the album works brilliantly. Yes, it’s an effort – seventy minutes for ten songs is an awful lot of an album, never mind another half-an-hour for the second CD. Speaking of which, The Bottom (the limited, second CD) is worth discussing, too. I’m going to mention a few tracks here, anyway, because frankly, it’s easily the equal of the main album. New Drugs, I must admit, jars a bit after the massive, dark expanses of the main album. This is faster in tempo, more positive, catchier, perhaps. One friend has compared it to Snog, which I kinda see in the musical composition, but not in the lyrics (there is none of the sardonic, sarcastic air so common to Snog material).
There is one song, though, on The Bottom, that makes it worth getting the 2CD release for alone – and I was alerted to Spitting Seeds pre-release, just in case I hadn’t heard it, by the label. They weren’t wrong – an absolutely staggering, near eight minute epic that takes in old film samples, thundering rhythms, string samples, a Portishead-esque interlude, even Holloway letting loose with his vocals (suitably distorted, of course). This is DWIFH striking out into another realm, where there are absolutely no limits, and the possibilities having heard this are frankly endless.
One last thing that Holloway excels at has been his choice of cover – as noted before, he’s made a point of releasing various covers over time, which have acted as usual pointers to his influences and future directions. There is only the one this time, tucked away at the end of The Bottom, and it is a fierce, punchy take on Ministry’s You Know What You Are. A track a few other artists have taken on too (Prometheus Burning made a scorching take on it a few years back, among others), and this one is nothing particularly different, but very good. It showcases his knack for programming and atmosphere, and is a great tip of the hat to a big influence.
As we come to the close of 2015, three years since Rag Doll Blues (the amodelofcontrol.com album of 2012), there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that once again this is one of the very best albums released this year. Michael Holloway clearly has an incredible ability to translate whatever is going on in his head, or his visions of what his music should sound like, into the recorded medium, with a jaw-dropping proficiency in production that makes for a dizzying depth to so many of his songs – not to mention an also impressive ability to make concepts work across a whole album.
Yeah, so this isn’t the most immediate album you are going to hear in 2015 (or in 2016, I’ll wager). It absolutely demands that you spend time with it, appreciating the depth, the feelings, the imagery. And immersing yourself in the glorious sounds therein.
Dive in. It may be dark, and foreboding, but there isn’t anything to fear, and instead much to admire and enjoy, while Michael Holloway is guiding us.