Album review: The Holy Family – ‘The Holy Family’: an exultant, double-album trip into innerspace

The Breakdown

Music for absolute entrancement and immersion, so far from music as lifestyle choice or commodity, as backdrop, it's chamber after chamber of intense texture and atmosphere to slip on and lose yourself in after dark. Bring a few likeminded souls along, and be rapt and wrapped.

MASTERFUL psychedelic imprint Rocket Recordings has added another string to its bow with the signing of the hallucinatory collective The Holy Family, whose first album arrives this Friday. And a hell of a trip it is, too, roaming freely across modern electronica and the oldest, earthiest folk, the most dronesome of motorik and the molten mantle of acid rock.

The band is the feverish brainchild of David J. Smith, otherwise of Guapo and Miasma & the Carousel of Headless Horses, and thus a name well appreciated by voyagers out into more esoteric sonic landscapes.

The Holy Family, the album of the same name, presents as a 13-track, double-album explosion through worlds of psychedelia, pastoral psych-folk, kosmiche and more, ever-shifting, ever-seductive.

“I guess if I had to try to put it into words, it’s my attempt at a musical interpretation of a very trippy and psychedelic murder mystery tale, or otherworldly dream/hallucination,” reflects David.

For the band as a whole, aesthetic inspiration comes from the magical realism of Angela Carter – whose 1991 documentary The Holy Family Album christened the new project – and the surrealist art of Dorothea Tanning. Both point at a dark and spectral brew of mushroomy excellence; a burrow into a deeper folklore of the land that still whispers its name if you listen deeply enough.

The Holy Family’s very particular aesthetic evolved naturally from initial improvisation and then sharp-eyed honing of this raw material alongside long-time friends and musical travellers from Guapo, Kavus Torabi, Emmett Elvin, Sam Warren and Michael J. York, who retreated to the countryside to get it together and allow the vision to form. Overdubs and layering followed later.

And it utilises every corner of its double-album space-time; every nook, every corner; every servants’ passage, every secret, verdant cut-through is explored in a record that fair exults in the psychedelia; from the electronic to the folky, from the blissed to the nightmarish. All is grist to The Holy Family mill.

Expect, nay; know, things will morph, the door will crack open to reveal other spheres, other spectres beyond. Take Dr. Leary’s advice and examine set and setting. This record knows more than you can conceive; has seen sights that would leave you scattered as so much confetti in the inner paths. It’s beautiful, it’s freakish, it’s beautifully freaky.

David J. Smith, of The Holy Family

“I Have Seen The Lion Walking” begins the vision quest and we blur into the world in gentle harmonics and environment sound of a neo-shoegaze bliss; the guitars, the voices chanting amidst, all seemingly running backwards in time. Flutes wind with the birdsong to bring a Grantchester acid pastoralism, and all the while it’s … swelling, building away, enmeshing you with a gentle insistence. It’s like that moment an hour after you’ve dropped when the light begins to sparkle. And it’s layering, ever deeper; and the major chord glisten starts to liquefy into the following and enigmatically titled “Skulls The … ” which, we’re told, had its genesis as a conceptual theme to a fictional detective series in which the protagonist is an acid casualty rather than the usual hard-bitten alcoholic (a grade up, then, from the spliff-indulging Hamish Macbeth). That piano has a turn of the Seventies/”A Day In The Life” foreboding; time to embrace the experience and slip downstream among a woozy chord interval, skirling reed instruments, a whole palimpsest of fuzz bass, mushroomy chimes from the guitar, REM-state skeletal percussion. Cling to the resolving chant, the incantation; that’s your silver thread.

“Inward Turning Suns” presents as your first peak; the very first single, it comes garlanded with a gloriously stylised animation – you can watch that down at the end – in which English myth meets the clean lines of the manga aesthetic. The track itself is a delicious longform riot of backwards masking and chanted lyrics. It’s many spiced, fully gliding through your blood in a dazzle of snatched, echoing vocals and luxurious souk flute trilling in flight, swooping and diving. This … this is psychedelia in pure form, clear-lit.

The accompanying animation was created by Mike Bourne, who explains: I created, animated, and shot the video entirely in 3D then deliberately ‘degraded’ it in post, evoking the 2D cel animation of films like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings. I wanted to mix that up with the distinct visual language of 70s’ folk/horror cinema and public information films like the terrifying Lonely Water and The Finishing Line.

“I really love the use of zoom lenses and pulled focus, the grainy 16mm film, the bold typography, muted colours, etc. and thought that would complement the slightly macabre lyrics.”

“Stones To Water” draws on an exhilarating scattered percussive surge, recalls the work of undeservedly forgotten Japanese psych outfit Ghost. Fuzz bass and six-string tremolo shimmer, lending hazy wonder to the sustain and drone; it’s an instrumental with a loose groove and atmospheric depth to luxuriate in as it gradually falls apart into a Jaki Liebezeit ceremonial rhythm, lost in the woods where the wild things call and hoot and proclaim. It transmutes to the dusk smoke of “Desert Night”, another, shorter, psychonaut atmosphere, thrilling with the sound of what’s out there beyond the flicker of the flame with a little of the Chocolate Watch Band at their most cinematic.

“Wrapped In Dust” is the ghost in your psyche, the eeriest of vocal call and response cutting through from innerspace, David’s voice at times a mocking shriek, at others raw and guttural. Restless, airlessly intense, you can almost see the shades swirl, the spirits dance. You may shiver or utter an admiring expletive. Go with it.

“World You Are Coming To” seems to pull back a little from the intensity – seems to, just a little, you understand; beginning in African drumming and an ebbing drone, other little drops of sound placed out there deftly to trip your hearing, the vocals are fully acid, processed to a eerie abstraction and in legion with a chorale holding a mantra note vibration. But oh!: false senses of security; so easily does it transmute, as the bass unearths itself from the rich loam and begins its cyclical growl, it thickets with a music that’s so very of the now and equally so very of a darker, ancient tradition. Lose yourself, embrace the altered state, as you’re supposed to. This music has evolved over the centuries with just that intent.

And supplicant now, absolutely peaking, with the preceding track’s eight minutes fading in a warm trill and “Inner Edge Of Outer Mind” clocking in at twelve, and we’re right out there, right out here, in howling guitar, incandescent; piano interjecting and floating out of key, psych-honky-tonk; the bass muscular, no horizons visible to either side, David emerging cloaked and impish with a declamatory lyric and vanishing once more into disembodied, vestigial utterances with some of that hectoring, haunting tone of John Lydon in PiL when they were good. In fact, that’s quite the thing; imagine Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd on an absolute fuck ton of liberty caps, a post-punk austerity at the core overcome by the shrooms. So very intense.

“A New Euphoria” admits more air among its delirious canter, a swing of click and clatter percussively, its central keyed motif pulsing like a heart. Sheets of feedback guitar drone sweep through, and it’s a lighter place to dwell, no less pregnant with mystery, but more on a human scale than the twin sonic pillars now over our shoulder. In a diurnal concept, the deep night is now positively in retreat before the rays of “See, Hear, Smell, Taste”, really comedown lush in a Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 way; all glint and chime. And release, relax; until, that is, everything breaks to David, barely unaccompanied, as he intones: “I see / Catastrophe … I hear / The buzzards near.” Now, you didn’t think you’d get away that easily, did you?

“St. Anthony’s Fire” was the second single before the album, and it presents as a deep psychedelic folk odyssey, clawhammer arpeggio technique, violined guitars and vocal glide, gently tribal drumming with the scent of generations past amassing at your shoulder, ready to consort and dance, exult in the shade; pastoral drone-folk incantation of the very finest form.

David J Smith expands on the song: “Conceived and recorded in a mushroom field (somewhere) in England, ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ sees our unravelling mystery tale radiating towards its peak of delirium.”

A hell of a journey concludes in the diptych of “Chasm”. We’re almost touching down, but not quite yet. Part the first is a open, ambient drone with the smoke and thunderheads of grander, more elemental atmospheres cresting, inexorably advancing; you can pretty much taste the ozone. It’s the closest the album veers to contemporary electronica and is straight-out pretty. The second phase regathers its energies for one final charge through your head, thrumming with polyrhythmic power, coloured by free-associating piano and synth.

Delirious. Psychotropic. Sprawling. Iterative. Many-hued; The Holy Family’s debut album is all of these things. Indulgent? Yes; could it be any other way; would you have it any other way? To voyage this far out into the various psychedelic musics – acid folk, krautrock, witch folk, straight-out freeform delirium – is to voyage where the maps say little. You have to have the power to trust your instincts and the states of altered consciousness that allow you to transmit back from the edges.

Music for absolute entrancement and immersion, so far from music as lifestyle choice or commodity, as backdrop, it’s chamber after chamber of intense texture and atmosphere to slip on and lose yourself in after dark. Bring a few likeminded souls along, and be rapt and wrapped.

The Holy Family’s The Holy Family will be released by Rocket Recordings digitally and on vinyl on July 2nd, and may be pre-ordered right now from Bandcamp.

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