San Holo
Photo: Haley Lan / Courtesy of Counter Records

San Holo Blends Bass Music and Emo on ‘bb u ok?’

On his second full-length album, bb u ok?, Dutch producer San Holo finds the natural affinity between emo and EDM.

bb u ok?
San Holo
bitbird / Counter Records
4 June 2021

The affinity between much of modern melodic bass music and the indie emo rock of yore has always been apparent. The raw, unabashed emotion, quiet/loud dynamics, and anthemic arrangements are common traits, even if they were rendered with largely different instruments and production styles. This natural progression reaches a full-on convergence on bb u ok?, the second full-length album from Dutch musician/producer San Holo.

If the time for such a meeting was right, the material suited it, too. bb u ok? is a breakup album. Over a sprawling, 20-track set, Holo faces and embraces the pain. Then he wallows in it. And wallows in it some more.

The results of this emotional immersion are varied but almost always agreeable at the very least. Most tracks employ a similar build method. A guitar arpeggio provides the framework around which Holo programs deep, syncopated rhythms and often beautiful swells of synths and effects. Music does not get much more off-putting than when it tackles complex emotions without sincerity. Thankfully, bb u ok? has no such issues. It is heartfelt and genuine, a fact that is only underscored by Holo’s delicate vocals featuring on many tracks.

bb u ok ? wrestles with the same conundrum as most any sprawling, 20-track collection would. Most of the album has trouble getting out from under the shadow of a handful of truly outstanding tracks. For the most part – and this may be surprising to some fans — the more emo bb u ok? gets, the better it is. The lead single “IT HURTS!” starts with a haunting theremin-like tone before Holo comes in with a pensive, feel-the-pain verse: “The only thing that I’ve learned / It’s only real when it hurts…/ It hurts!” Right on cue, a twinkling synth and martial drums build to a lush, dreamy, beatbox-fueled drop. Then it all happens again because when things are this primal, this real, who needs a second verse? Throughout the album, the words are not lyrics so much as mantras.

Throughout bb u ok?, almost every track plays out like its own self-contained grief cycle, with sadness turning to anger followed by a beautiful release that is ultimately cathartic. The climax is reached on the penultimate track, “You’ve Changed, I’ve Changed”, with assistance from similarly indie-minded American producer Chet Porter. Wasting no time, the track kicks right in with its brilliantly hooky, siren-like synth cry and otherwise is almost entirely a guitar-bass-drums endeavor. Like “IT HURTS!”, it makes great use of filtered vocal effects (and some of Holo’s and Porter’s buddies, no doubt) to create a mob-like chorus to deliver the fist-pumping chorus of “You’ve changed! / I’ve changed! / It’s not the same!” With its rattling fuzz bass and thrashing rhythm, the track sounds tailor-made to be co-opted by thousands of similarly disaffected fans during Holo’s upcoming headlining tour.

Between these towering bookends, the results are more varied. For those wanting a bit more light, ubiquitous EDM vocalist Bipolar Sunshine helps usher some in with the brightly hopeful “Find Your Way”. A couple of collaborations serve to square the emo-EDM circle. “Thoughts and Chemicals”, with post-emo icons American Football, is a highlight. As Holo keeps the music at a trippy slow burn, American Football frontman Mike Kinsella delivers one of his most powerful lyrics ever. “Don’t worry, I see you,” he assures a former lover who lives in his head. “You’re a fucking tattoo”. Devastating. Also devastating, but in the entirely wrong way, is the seemingly inevitable Weezer team-up, “Wheels-up”. With its clunky chorus that tries to shoehorn Weezer’s pop-punk esthetic into Holo’s atmospherics, it nearly jumps the shark with the rest of the album in tow.

Certainly, one could argue that some strategic paring would have resulted in an even stronger, 12-track album. To that end, while the story of “The Great Clown Pagliacci” is well worth hearing, a song called “I Just Wanna Fucking Cry” threatens parody. Overall, though, San Holo should be commended for allowing his emotions – and his musical tastes — to run where they may.

RATING 7 / 10