We came across Hollingshead on the 4th of December and were immediately hooked. Coincidentally, it was the same day that their debut album "Stay Dead" was released. With only the spooky, infernal album cover to guide us, we listened through the whole hour-long piece of art. Suffice to say, it was an interesting listen. This is one of those albums where you enter expecting something, and halfway through the second song an idea blows your expectations off course, and when the 8 songs pass you are left with the after taste of an indefinable series of aural experiences. Stay Dead greets you at the entry through an old-school metal song. As you make yourself comfortable, you hear the otherworldly synth, the church organ backed by a church choir, the tense never-ending buildups, the tribal drumming, the classic 70s synth prog riffs, and surprisingly Whovian atmospheric additions. Even the old-school metal has some progression in it; not in sound, but in technique. On first listen, we made the embarrassing mistake of assuming that all the distorted sounds come from electric guitars. I mean, why wouldn't it be? But no, the distorted "metal sound" comes from quadruple tracked bass playing by Johan Niemann with some clever producing tricks. Listen to the album at least twice, once before reading the review and once after; you will notice, in the second pass, that there are a lot of small details that improve the listening experience from behind the scenes.
1. And While Waiting For The Sky To Open (6:08)
It's been quite some time since any band put out a song that both combined the Sabbath-ian evilness with the modern composition elements of metal music. The rocky intro and verse was an instant reminder of the strong Doom influence on the band where the riffs were based on chord progressions with b2 chords. Both the way the bass is emphasized and the fact that vocals choose to sing specific melodies show some similarities with early Motörhead compositions, showing their varied list of musical influences. What makes this song special is that the keyboards' effect on the whole mood of the track. The keys were very carefully used which enabled them to give specific heaviness and also lightness—because of the deterministic and mood-setting way of choir sounds. Although the band tried to incorporate the rhythm of the bass guitar riffs with the drums, this actually limited their creativity on drumming. Modern prog bands have been experimenting with some different layering approaches by operating bass guitar and drum parts' rhythms that let them create more powerful and more authentic compositions. But if that was what they were after, this very much does its job. This old-school drumming was most apparent in the long buildup of the song that wasn't a hundred percent effective with the way it resolved. Although the midsection might not give you the best satisfaction, the outro with bass back vocals and 4/4 synth-action will definitely excite you as one of the most valuable highlights of the opening track.
2. Lights (5:55)
After the more straightforward metal opening track, the second track "Lights" welcomes you with industrial metal experimentations with atmospheric dissonant synth sounds. Marching drum rhythm completes its medieval feel with the organ sound that’s being played upon it. With the expressive vocal performance of Gidon Tannenbaum and the addition of distortions, the song takes an instant turn and hits you in the face with a long-awaited massive attack. Concept album or not, the first two songs carries similar spirits because of the b5 notes that were constantly used throughout the vocal performances and bass riffs. It was interesting to see a band that has never relied on a classic 1 to 5 cadence that would enable them to be more sympathetic to the listener’s ear—like most of the pop songs nowadays. Bands like Soen combine these 2 different musical ideas (disturbing riffs and poppy chord progressions) to enhance the musical story they are telling. One thing that they could do better is that they would actually create a space for the listener to get calm and be more interested in the upcoming heavy sections, but since the song dynamically and musically resembles similar feelings throughout it gets harder for the listener to stay within their stories. Other than that, the instruments come together perfectly with the vocals and each other in every part of the track that you wouldn't find a piece that doesn't fit together. You can again listen to the synthesizer sounds that go together perfectly with organs, drums, and bass guitars.
3. Through The Doors of Time (7:22)
Immediately starting off with the distorted bass, Through The Doors Of Time creates a dark and heavy atmosphere with the very first notes it uses. The addition of Gidon Tannenbaum’s angsty vocals and the 4/4 beat of the drums enhances this atmosphere, and as the vocals climb to higher pitches, the build-up to the 1:30 minute mark is clearly felt. This combination of sounds reminds the listener of the much revered Avenged Sevenfold, proving that the band did a good job in creating the mystic sound they were aiming towards.
The repeating distorted sound that was used in the beginning reappears near the third minute of the song, and although it feels like a shift in the song’s tone or an introduction of a new progression is about to happen, the same rhythm continues. The lyrics here also seem to be repeating the lyrics in the first part, and they emphasize dark images such as a “lonely rider moving through the desert”, a “broken kingdom”, and so on. These lyrics do add to the tone of the song effectively. Maybe adding new musical aspects to this second part could improve the song and prevent possible monotony, although the mystic atmosphere is preserved either way. The release of tension near the 4:46 minute mark is perhaps the greatest part of this song. The stress created by the vocals and fast-paced distorted bass finally wears off and the change in tone here is definitely much needed. The drawn-out sounds enable the listener to appreciate the previous sections more. In the end, Through the Door of Time has done a good job of showing off the band’s style and signature sound.
4. Stay Dead (7:19)
The keyboards make the introduction to the title track of the album, and the vocals quickly enter to take the spotlight. The brutality of the lyrics (talking about how “Everyone’s arguing as we’re crying ourselves to sleep”) really hits home, and the syncopated rhythms from the drums impress the listener. Of course, this rather calm melody does not last for longer than one and a half minutes, as the signature doom metal sound of the band suddenly appears with the distorted bass and drums. The synthesizer is an interesting addition to the dark sound here, as it does not contribute to the angsty and somber mood of the song, but adds to the mysticism of it. It’s nice to hear that the tension is released in the middle section of the song, as in the previous songs, the stress was held for a bit longer than usual. Leaving the bass, vocals, and keyboards alone and taking out the beat of the drums during this release effectively highlights the skills of the band members. The transition from this part to the darker segment is quite fast, and just as the listener gets used to the darker sound, the song changes moods once more. The band is quite unpredictable when it comes to when they are changing the tone of the song, and this helps the listener stay hooked but can also get a bit hard to follow. Overall, for the progressive metal/doom fans, Stay Dead proves that it is a nice addition to playlists with its dynamic melody.
5. Wish I Was a Criminal (6:11)
You probably can imagine the big smile we had immediately upon hearing the 10/8 rhythm of the fifth track. Subdivided as 3-2-1-4, decreasing the first three divisions by one beat each time to land on the stable sixth beat of the rhythm creates a sense of necessity to propel the song forward with each bar. This, along with the hi-hat at the eighth beat connecting the bar to the next, creates a very smooth and ingenious rhythm that acts as a 4/4 mask over the actual time signature. Gidon Tannenbaum's vocals in this song especially swarm with emotions. It has a shaky feel that although makes the lyrics hard to understand, still adds to the authenticity of the song. The narrator wants to be free and his delivery makes this pursuit more transparent:
Break the chains Set me free
One of the strong sides of Hollingshead is their compositions and how they organize different sections together. There can be a lot of short variational sections but it is very easy for them to add up into total chaos for the listener. To overcome this, the band used these sections as transitions on their own; since it encapsulates features from one of the main sections, the listener does not get confused, but the sheer variety of them that they can utilize makes the song sound much more progressive and innovative. A fine example is the short drum solo/fill at 2:06; the song could in theory still work without it, but this addition not only makes the track more interesting but also contributes to the transition between the main sections.
The track also features a dramatic section with orchestral strings that acts as an interlude. I wanted to add this because it sounded like a very distinct influence that the band could perhaps explore more. Speaking of influences, throughout the album, the vocals of Tannenbaum somehow felt so familiar yet I couldn't put my finger on it. It was only upon hearing this section that I realized that it awfully reminded me of Strawbs' vocalist Dave Cousins. It is a very underrated technique of singing in the progressive scene so it was nice to see this section as a continuation of it.
6. The Valley (7:26)
"The Valley" is built upon a keyboard riff that syncs up with drums to create a start-stop feeling. The same theme comes along throughout the song to relieve some of the tension created later on. I could not see a very clear use of the next part, but it sounds good regardless. The bass sounds like something out of a Primus record while a choir synth plays on top with a repeating pattern. My favorite part, however, is the continuation of the second repetition of the main riff. Female vocals singing a sing-along melody create a stark contrast from the overall noisy tone of the album. The drum roll in this part's intro is one element of Hollingshead's signature sound. It is very commonly used in the album to build up to a more continuous groove. As soon as you think about how hard it is to top such a build-up with a resolution, the impending resolution arrives. First, a complicated drum fill silences the whole music. Then a slower and simpler distorted synth riff takes charge of the atmosphere, which then connects to the main riff. Circle of life, if you will.
7. Burn With Me (5:19)
"Burn With Me" starts out with a complicated 4 bar riff that instantly sets the mood for the rest of the song. Playing a demonic unison riff with each other, the bass guitars may be the least emphasized instrument in this song. The fundamental structure of the song is based on dissonant keyboard and synth sounds—which is very much different than the rest of the album where the tracks are mostly bass guitar-based. The disturbing interlude/bridge section is very much apparent in nearly every song on the album, making up a crucial part of their composition. Drumming in this truck is also more expressive and self-based, considering the separation between the rest of the music and the additions of other percussions. The finale resembles one of the strongest and "in-the-face" moments of the album, combining all the instruments together with lots of key and synth layers. It just sounds like a haunting musical where you can't escape the evil and obligated to "Burn With" them. Although the hitting finale works in the best way possible, Hollingshead could make it even more effective if they would pull out some keys and synths in the previous parts of the song. Since the song is constantly radiating heavy layers of key instrumentation, the dynamic gap between the finale and previous parts get closer and the finale hits less than expected.
8. The Traveler's Prayer (8:02)
The final and longest track of the album finishes with a fantastic impression of the band, where wishing that the album was longer is us "the listener's prayer". From the opening drum fill, you experience this feeling of being sucked into the song's rich texture, carefully crafted by keyboardist Carl Westholm's mellotron and distorted organs. The drum rhythm here is fairly simple yet Fredrik Haake sets out to prove his prowess through the strong on-time feel and the complicated fills that shines even through the low volume of the drums in some sections. The ambiguously hoarse quality of Gidon Tannenbaum's vocals intertwines with the distorted bass notes in the verse section. It would be even more intriguing to hear Tannenbaum lean more on the "distorted" side of his vocals with Johan Niemann prolonging and slightly bending the bass notes to create a dirtier feeling. The exclusion of the guitar presents the band with the opportunity of being uniquely creative and although we can only give them suggestions, it even excites us to imagine all the directions they can pursue in the future to completely turn what most people would consider a drawback to be their stronger side. Like any good prog song, "The Traveler's Prayer" features many pleasing sections (and their variations) that create a palette of dynamics where each one feels like a natural transition to what comes next and certain outbursts of startling prestige fill your ears with the raw sound of Swedish metal fondness (at any point, you expect a potential growl to turn the song inside out). The most prominent change happens in the middle of the song, the second part of it being a layering experiment on its own. This is perhaps why the band chose the track as the closing because the section on its own is memorable enough to repeat in the listener's head for much longer after the first listen. But the layering is what makes this uplifting progression that much more progressive with the sound effects that we will not even try to identify. This song in a nutshell is Hollingshead, with all its raw, ironic, and terrific sound.