Holy Sons is the solo project of Emil Amos, drummer for instrumental post-rock Americana band Grails, as well as the Sleep dirge-metal offshoot, Om. Amos is a busy man, consistently producing albums with all of these three incarnations. Each Holy Sons album represents a collection of work recorded over the period of a few years, the current one bringing together tracks from 2007-2010. Survivalist Tales! continues in the same vein of dark, moody, slow-tempo folk-inspired songs that has characterized all of the Holy Sons output.
Holy Sons’ music really bears the mark of being a solo project. Each song sounds like it has been constructed over time, layer by layer, individually. The most admirable thing about Amos’s songwriting is his willingness to leave empty space in his songs, even though multiple tracks of vocals and instruments go into each composition. Since the songs are so slow and Amos records them by himself (over time), the empty space they incorporate may be easier to come by than it would be with a group of other musicians. Each note seems to take a breath before moving on the next.
The songs are also very quiet — there’s no need to shout over yourself. The hushed sound almost recalls a smooth soul album from the ‘70s, with soft drum taps, acoustic guitar accents, and nearly swallowed vocals. But the music is hard to categorize; it escapes encapsulation. For example, “Slow Days” works itself into an emotional grandeur that uses very played out symphonic sounds, changing from minor to major with sentimentality typical of mainstream radio. Amos also does a weird cover of the Troggs’ “From Home” that sounds nothing at all like the original — to the point of excluding the chorus. Instead of a backbeat romper, the song becomes a trip-hop downer.
Holy Sons infuses hushed slow songs with doom and darkness. On “Golden Child”, one of the album’s standout tracks, Amos comes very close to an early ‘90s mellow grunge sound, right down to a double-tracked froggy voice. The guitar riff could be a rocker, but instead it is restrained, twisting the rhythm around. It is simultaneously intense and sleepy, with a building sense of despair. Perhaps this grunge influence also contributes to the ultra-serious mood that covers the whole album.
One of Amos’s influences is so obvious in his voice and songwriting that it’s hard to not constantly make the comparison. His voice very clearly channels Will Oldham in its soft-spoken faltering, its frequent breaks into falsetto, its suppressed emotion. Holy Sons’ songs owe much to Oldham’s relaxed style. However, Amos lacks the folksy wisdom of Oldham — most clearly in his lyrics. Rather than taking a storytelling approach, Amos’s songs are more confessional, betraying a very personal seeming depression and anger.
While it’s nice that Amos’s anger takes him to a different place than the typically fluffy refuge of childhood so familiar with bedroom projects, there is still something that seems too personal about Holy Sons, as if it was music made for no one. It doesn’t quite make sense; a strange quality of accretion turns these songs into collages. Survivalist Tales! evokes a frontier mentality, depicted on the cover by the lone man fighting off a bear with a knife under a bruise colored sunset. But rather than making the traditional folksy acoustic-based music of a lonely mountain man, Amos puts together draining electric guitars, synths, and drum machines. And the impending doom is not measured by the hope of a new life in a new land, rather it continually confronts the knowledge that everything will soon come crashing down.
The strongest songs on the album are the instrumental interludes like “Sympathetic Strings” and “Deprivation Thrills” (perhaps nodding to Amos’s Grails sound). These tracks force the depressing mood to coalesce into a more concentrated musical vision. Knowing when not to play may be one of the best qualities in a musician, but the space between that marks the lyrical pieces becomes too dissipating. Still, the album manages to slowly get under your skin; the melodies, which you may have first quickly dismissed, come back to you, insistent — just like an unshakeable depression.