Many smaller labels in the industrial scene are lucky if they release one truly extraordinary album over a period of a few years, but I’m beginning to think that Artoffact are more than just lucky in picking their artists. In recent years they have released truly brilliant albums from Urceus Exit, Saltillo, v01d, and then North American/CD releases for Chrysalide, AAIMON and Necro Facility. And, of course, the first DWIFH album, Harm’s Way, which appeared during 2010 out of nowhere to a whole lot of acclaim and a swift rising in profile.
And over two years or so on from that debut, Michael Arthur Holloway has returned with his second album, which shows a sign of moving on and developing his sound. Pointers to the changes have been dropped a fair bit over the past year or so, in a succession of covers that have acted both as nods to the past and future – and if those are the influences, he has been casting the net wide. Said covers have included the obvious (Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails), and less-obvious (Prince, Phil Collins!), and of these the storming take on Prince’s Controversy raised a number of eyebrows when announced and swiftly caused jaws to drop once we heard it.
The elements that caused said jaws to drop are carried over – and expanded upon – on the album, and what is perhaps most extraordinary is the change in atmosphere. Despite apparently being about childhood fears, neuroses, and a loss of innocence, this album sends its message in bright, primary colours, as opposed to the dark, shadowy feel of the debut. That is not to say this is a “happy” album – far from it – but it never once wallows in misery and instead fights through it.
This is a message read loud and clear on the first few tracks – an awesome sequence of songs that will do nicely as a well-rounded introduction to Michael’s work. No More Nightmares opens with eerie piano and vocal samples, before sweeping it away with a muscular rhythm that bursts through like sunlight through the curtains. Better Days cribs a few more ideas from Skinny Puppy’s back catalogue, with dense, complex (and ever-shifting) rhythms but with a soaring, wonderful refrain that is gloriously accompanied by a poppy synth line that pulls the song ever upwards.
New Age of Reason was actually debuted at the turn of the year, and the quickstep tempo, and more sparse sound was actually a bit of a surprise. But in the context of the album – as opposed to comparing to the past – it works brilliantly. The last of this brilliant four song sequence is, however, perhaps the most pop-oriented of them all. Rain Machine has a Puppy-eqsue rhythm (not the first song to use a heavy, bass-y rhythm similar to Worlock, and it won’t be the last), but on top it has sweeping synth washes, multi-tracked vocals and another soaring chorus that is really quite wonderful – but topping it all off is the second vocal behind it, an incessant chant that adds an additional urgency to a song that to begin with feels somewhat languid.
Interestingly, after the dreamy, pretty interlude of Doll Pieces, song lengths begin to stretch out, the album appears to have been deliberately constructed with the snappier, more immediate stuff upfront. And the first evidence of this is Dry Bed, a dense, complex industrial soundscape full of vocal samples, with Michael’s vocal deeper in the mix – this is much more in the style of the debut album. Mirrors, which is even longer at nearly eight minutes, turns the atmosphere even darker, and moodier, and works well as something of a breather after the somewhat full-on opening sequence.
Panic Matter begins to pick up the pace again, with clever, impressive programming resulting in a shifting sound that is so well done that in other hands this song could easily have sounded a confused mess. Here, though, with well-placed samples, continuity is retained. Doll Parts takes up, as the name suggests, from where Doll Pieces left off and expands it into a full song, to impressive effect.
The only even vague weak point – plainly for the fact that while sticking to the broad style of the album, it doesn’t contain anything particularly memorable or standout – is Lesser Light. But even this upholds the impressive production standards. Much better is the reverb-drenched, mist-shrouded Scissors, where a naggingly familiar sample (I think from a recent horror movie) is the hook the song revolves around, rather than Michael Holloway’s sparse vocals that instead hover in the background. The album is closed by Stainless, that again refers back to the gloomy, nightmarish visions of the first album, with Michael’s vocals entirely absent this time, their place taken by a litany of vocal samples apparently describing more moments of terror, fury and frustration.
Despite this downbeat close, this is far from the stereotypical goth-industrial attitude here. Yeah, it comes across at points as such, but there is actually a surprising amount of positivity here. In New Age of Reason, Michael Holloway notes that “we build the future on the bones of the past” – and it could well be the tagline for this album. This album is the sound of an artist full of confidence, building on his influences and his own work so far, and taking it to an impressive next level that demands – and deserves – a wider audience. Don’t think of it as simply an industrial album – this has an appeal far beyond this restrictive moniker.
Second albums are usually meant to be the difficult one, where a promising artist either sinks or swims under the weight of expectation. No such perils here – this is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year, and going on how long it took to uncover some of the delights of the debut, I’ve now doubt that this album will have considerable staying power in the future, too.
(Also of note is the second CD, available separately as a download, too – a selection of impressive remixes and a few of the previously mentioned covers).