(le) poisson rouge | August 26, 2015
Emil Amos, the Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist of Grails and OM, has been recording highly personal, thickly philosophical tunes under the name Holy Sons for going on twenty-five years. For the first decade of the project’s long lifespan, Amos kept the tracks to himself, home-recording as many as five songs a night for an appreciative yet exacting audience of one. Come the 21st century, all that changed. Fall of Man, out now on Thrill Jockey, marks Holy Sons’ fourth full-length record in the last two years to be released on a prominent experimental label. Few underground singer-songwriters in recent memory—maybe only Will Oldham in all his masked and unmasked iterations—match Amos in documenting the thoughts of a richly ambiguous first-person character at such an expeditious and sonically adventurous clip.
Yet Holy Sons still rarely appears live on stage, fueling the prevailing perception of Amos as a kind of lo-fi ambassador of the shut-in ascetic life. Diehard fans ran to (le) poisson rouge and St. Vitus last month to catch Amos before he retreats again into the dark void of his basement recording studio.
In person, Amos surprises with his easygoing stage banter and his short-clipped, average-dude haircut. Watching him rock slowly to and fro in a plain t-shirt and navy cotton pants, it’s easy to forget about the darkly-tinged choruses of songs like “Disintegration Is Law.” A little eye-wink and brow-raise, on a tasty, ’70s-infused guitar lick, or a cutting lyric, start to hint at the metaphysical mischief living beneath all the normalcy. So do Amos’s two bandmates—Brian Markham on bass and Adam Bulgasem on drums, both of Thrill Jockey band Dommengang—who bring both the outfits and the chops of a ’90s metal band to Amos’s classic-rock crunch. The spacious yet tightly-controlled interplay between bass and drums grounds Amos’s wandering, wah-wah-soaked guitar solos in a gritty earthiness which eludes the album’s more deliberately ethereal production. While the Fall of Man album nods to the mid ’70s heyday of Pink Floyd in its reverb-caked guitars and swirling vocal harmonies, this Holy Sons live trio sounds more like Bonnie “Prince” Billy backed by the choogling shuffle of Crazy Horse. It’s more Southern ’90s than Californian ’70s, more Louisville bar than Laurel Canyon studio.
This looser live arrangement cleared a welcome chunk of sonic space on songs like album-opener “Mercenary World.” Amos’s high and warbling voice cut cleanly through the bass and drum accompaniment, each subtle inflection detectable as he gravely delivered his message over and over again: “Oh, it’s a mercenary world / M-E-R-C-E-N-A-R-Y.” Bulgasem matched Amos’s repeated, sung-out letters with a marching, too-slow clop, adding even more weight to the lyrics. Amos’s unabashedly heavy-rockin’ guitar solos expressively filled the musical moments in between verses, injecting a high-energy counterbalance to his spare and stoic singing.
Over the next month, Holy Sons will motor their way through the East Coast, South, and Midwest in support of the famed drone metal group Earth. In the winter, they’ll pick up another opening slot, this time in front of ex-Uncle Tupelo alt-country progenitor Jay Farrar. The wide musical space between Earth’s Northwestern drone and Farrar’s Midwestern drawl shows off the flexibility of Amos’s songwriting and Holy Sons’ music. It also makes a strong case for Amos’s growing concern with clarity and simplicity. While he still churns out music at the same prodigious pace of his experimentalist past, Amos gives the songs themselves more and more space to spread out.
While this newfound laid-back spaciousness will surely slot nicely into Southern and Midwestern Earth and Farrar shows, it stood in stark contrast to the frenzied Manhattan mood of the LPR show. Tacked in between the Earth and Holy Sons sets, downtown guitarist Marc Ribot collaborated with the electronic musician Ikue Mori to live-score three short films by the experimental filmmaker Jennifer Reeves. All three artists make compelling and fascinating works on their own but, as a hastily thrown-together trio, their improvised combination of sound and light felt decidedly hurried, unrehearsed, and bland. It didn't help that LPR’s projector systems cut out midway through two of three shorts, and Ribot’s bitterly annoyed reaction to the technical malfunctions and the audience’s chatter cast a bad-tempered pall over the whole affair.
Ribot, Mori and Reeves should have taken a cue from Amos and Holy Sons’ relaxed, open-ended performance. Ribot’s three overly-primed guitars and their cohort of effects pedals and prepared gadgets looked and sounded grossly over-the-top compared to Holy Sons and Earth’s minimal set-up. As Ribot scurried around Reeve’s experimental horror short in expectedly pulpy film-noir guitar runs, Amos sat at the merch table, signing autographs and exchanging hi-fives and stories about travels to India. For someone who spent decades toiling alone and apart from the music world at large, Amos looked markedly at ease on and off stage. His years of seeking have given him a firm footing in the material world, which he’ll take with him on tour from the dissatisfied affectedness of Ribot’s Manhattan all the way to the stilled sway of the West Coast. It’s a good idea to catch him along the way.
MICHAEL BLAIR is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Yo La Tengo cover band the Electric Tie Rack Preservation Society.