Editor’s Note: The following review is a guest contribution from David Zeidler, who writes regularly for the excellent Arctic Drones and also runs the post-rock-centric PR outlet Young Epoch. He is a good egg, and we like him very much.
There is a long-running joke at the publication that I have called home for the past few years, Arctic Drones, that revolves around senile “Gramps” (at age 37, I am currently by far the oldest writer on our staff) consistently forgetting what he has previously written, and declaring that every album he reviews is a “potential album of the year.” It has become so well-documented that, out of the desire to be as professional a writer as possible and avoid repetitious phrasings, I have made a very conscious effort to shy from such wording over the past year. Why lead with this potentially perplexing anecdote? Because Holy Fawn has finally released their first full-length record, Death Spells, and it is without hesitation and with full clarity of mind that I declare that it as, to this point, my choice for the best album of 2018.
Holy Fawn has been building quite a reputation for themselves over the past two years, since the 2016 release of their EP Realms. Much of this hype was driven via social media by This Patch of Sky frontman Kit Day, who proclaimed Holy Fawn the best live band he’d ever witnessed and could often be seen singing their praises all around Facebook. For a band that doesn’t really present as a post-rock band, they nevertheless began to establish quite a following in numerous circles within that genre. For me, this marked the beginning of a grand mystique swirling about them; a little-known indie band from Arizona being touted as the next big thing by respected musicians isn’t something I’m likely to gloss over lightly. Upon checking out Realms I was sufficiently impressed, but it wasn’t until the band released the first single from Death Spells, “Arrows,” a full year ago that I fully realized how exciting and potentially important this band could be. The slow, simple, fist-clenching, jaw-tightening chug of the riff that follows the second chorus may have been the heaviest thing I heard all year, which is made even more impressive by the fact that the band could very easily categorize their music as “pretty;” the ways in which they balance their divergent sonic palettes is nothing short of breathtaking. “Arrows” was hands-down my favorite track of 2017, building up a substantial anticipation for what Holy Fawn had in store on the horizon this year. They certainly did not disappoint.
What makes Holy Fawn so enticing is how disarmingly and lusciously idiosyncratic they are; despite having elements familiar to several genres, nothing else sounds quite like what they are doing. They are wholly unique, which, in 2018, is probably the most refreshing quality a band can have. The best description one could use is clearly shoegaze, but there are qualities they possess – elements of post-rock, metal, post-hardcore and doom – that set them in another realm all their own. Leading the charge regarding distinctive qualities is the hypnotically vexing voice of singer/guitarist Ryan Osterman. It is almost androgynous in its delivery, to the point where I initially thought that Holy Fawn had both a male and a female vocalist before looking deeper into the band’s lineup. A typical shoegaze characteristic is the dreamy vocals buried beneath walls of sound, but the approach is different here. Osterman’s vocals stand out with clarity, but the entire mix is awash with a variety of effects and sonic manipulations, carefully crafted so that the listener is never quite left on balance, like when your eyes blur and images double, and in the moments before you can blink back to your normal vision nothing is quite as it seems. Like the rest of the instrumentation on the record, it’s seriously well-produced, and the equation is just right: pretty noise + heavy noise x unpredictability = Holy Fawn.
This may seem like a curious digression but bear with me: as I listened through this record, I couldn’t help but conjure thoughts of another strange work of art that has compelled me for the past twenty years. If there is one creation that I could compare Death Spells to it would be Dario Argento’s essential 1977 visual and aural assault, Suspiria. Like that film, Death Spells is cut only from its own cloth. For as much music as I have listened to and films that I have watched, there is nothing that recalls the approach of either. Much the same as Argento’s lurid, color-soaked rumination on the occult, Holy Fawn’s music is equal parts haunting and gorgeous, mystical and sinister, melodious and cacophonous, alarming and transfixing. Just as Argento lovingly transposed artfulness on top of trashiness, Holy Fawn layers its source subgenres with a kind of sonic sorcery that is entirely its own spellbinding brew. This connection may not be too outlandish either, as a sampling of Holy Fawn’s music videos suggest an affinity for the horror genre, washed as they are in disquieting imagery and ghoulish subject matter.
If you’re going to love Death Spells it’s likely you’ll know it by the 30 second mark of the album opener “Dark Stone,” which demonstrates one of Holy Fawn’s signature inventions, disorienting transitions from quiet to heavy that are as jagged and seething as most anything you’ll hear coming from the metal genres. These careful moments of precision studio tweaking are part of what gives the compositions their power. You simply never know when this record is going to knock you on your ass, and even once you do the experience doesn’t diminish. Like the aforementioned post-chorus riff on “Arrows,” this is a kind of heaviness that makes you lean back in your seat in awe. That’s not a feeling I find myself having very often, and I treasure it when it comes along.
But Death Spells isn’t all just soft-loud dynamics and spooky atmospherics. You only need to hear the first propulsive seconds of swaying post-punk that characterize “Yawning” to see that this is a band that can write accessible rock tunes when appropriate. It’s a track that I could easily imagine hearing layered over an intense moment in a dystopian action flick. It’s catchy and has enough familiarity to lock in with listeners, but it also remains firmly entrenched within the Holy Fawn aesthetic. Key moments like the perpetually-building tension of the second single “Drag Me Into The Woods” and the towering slowcore riffage of “Take Me With You” are balanced nicely by tracks like “Two Waves” and “Same Blood,” which could have been throwaway interlude tracks but instead have their own distinct character and place on the record, bringing some quiet beauty to counter the grim fury that the surrounding tracks tend to evolve toward. “Sleep Tongue” concludes the album perfectly, tying together all the varying threads of Death Spells into one space, growing from pretty post-rock ambiance into dreamy shoegaze and finally to desperate rage before collecting everything for one last impassioned surge toward to finish line.
There are plenty of bands who capture me with a tune, but upon further inspection the results are ever-diminishing. It is rare for a band to come through with a fully-realized work that enthralls from front to back. Beyond that, it is almost never that an artist can achieve that distinction whilst crafting a path of singularity. Holy Fawn is doing that right now, and it’s time for more people to take notice. Of all the great records of 2018 – and there are plenty – this one somehow feels like a landmark, something that we’ll look back upon and say “yeah, that was a moment of great importance. If you haven’t discovered Holy Fawn yet, you’re quickly running out of excuses.