So it goes with doom and doom-adjacent artists, the suffocating wear-you-down nature leads to a common endgame. The physicality of gargantuan riffs and laborious rhythms take a toll, eroding one’s sunshiny disposition to a hopeless and dread-bogged torpor. Despite (or because of) this, we love it. We live to feel that shit deep in our guts, withstanding every slog knowing it’s just helping to build a callous for a larger demon that looms beyond the wearing effects of low-frequencies and slow tempos. Still, if there’s something to read from the tea leaves of all that is slow and heavy, there may be some change on the horizon. Whether it’s the invigorating power and beauty of humanity in YOB’s Our Raw Heart or the paisley-tinged fuzz of Sergeant Thunderhoof’s Terra Solus, it feels like some are starting to open up to a bringing a little more light into the murky depths of doom.
Similarly, Portland quartet Holy Grove echo this notion on their aptly-titled second full-length, II. Largely because they fall on the bluesier end of the doom spectrum, the group radiates an uncommon brightness. They beam with a lively energy and immense, open feel as opposed to the suffocating, oppressing approach of their gloomy contemporaries. On paper (er, screen?), it may seem like this departure is just a matter of tonality, but it’s really more about their overall songwriting approach and style. While parallels will inevitably be drawn to bands like Jex Thoth or Witch Mountain, Holy Grove are the Granny Smith to the aforementioned Red Delicious or Fuji. It’s a fair comparison, but it neglects the nuance that makes this group so engaging. Heavy shit producer/engineer extraordinaire Billy Anderson is a perfect fit for the group, playing to the band’s compositional strengths and dialing in an extremely well-balanced mix. It’s truly spacious and encourages listeners to explore every forlorn crevasse of II’s 45 minutes. Even with his robust resume, Anderson’s work behind the board on II is noteworthy, and is the kind of stuff “I want my album to sound like that’s” are made of. Given that everything is easily within an ear’s reach, it’s just a pleasure to listen to. The cymbals have a bright shimmer to them, synths gleam, and guitars are just fuzzy enough as to not muddy up the whole show all while embracing the dynamic vacuums of empty space and silence.
These brighter moments are all compounded by the details and variety. There always, always, always seems to be room for the entirety Andrea Vidal’s reverb to be resolved, and her layered vocals are always to the point of juuust enough rather than overboard. Her abilities as a singer are obviously impressive, but a few surprises of limit-pushing howls and distortion (see the hard-charging “Aurora”) are to be found, too. Trent Jacobs’ solos are prominently featured in old-school rock ‘n’ roll fashion, his flurries make for more than a few amp melting landmarks along the way, whether by ferocious closing arguments or feature-spot solos. Intentional or not, songs are structured in a way where these two share the spotlight, and rarely is there a moment where there things aren’t moving along to the next distinguishable moment. This is perpetuated by the rhythm section of Gregg Emley (bass) and Eben Travis (drums). They’re regularly on point as they underscore or complement Jacobs’ leadwork or Vidal’s vocals with tasteful diversity and thoughtful restraint. If by means of the steadily brewing power stomp at the close of “Blade Born” or the simple cowbell-backed lead on “Aurora,” they’re conscious enough to avoid getting in anyone’s way, keeping things clean and clear throughout – it’s a simple beauty.
It’s hard not to be charmed by the glimpses of light on II. While dark, moody, and mystical, there’s a lot of earworming fun to be had. “Blade Born” features and irresistable blues rock chorus that feeds off the swagger and bounce of the central riff, as if they borrowed a leftover hook from The Black Crowes and gave it a proper swampy lurch. The caked in dirt “Aurora” is a groovy stoner rock jam that gets grittier as it fights back against Vidal’s sandblasting vocals. “Solaris” and “Valley of the Mystics” are essentially OG Black Sabbath, but they’re embellished with some warming guitar leads and piquing movements that escape the reach of traditional doom tropes. The quiet, stripped down moments are perfectly executed, building quality tension and adding some nice dynamics to the record. Even in these quiet passages, they still sound fucking massive (there’s no such thing as too much reverb) and refuse to be dwarfed by their voluminous counterparts. Ultimately, it’s the closer “Cosmos” is what will likely serve as the record’s crowning achievement. Vidal’s croons glide as freely as Osbourne over “Planet Caravan,” coasting through a vastness of space that’s accentuated by some hauntingly Opeth-esque keys and vibrant leads (Jacobs is definitely taking his vitamins). Oh yeah, there’s a guest appearance from some Mike Scheidt guy here, too. It’s the kind of track that can make the staunchest doomster a little misty-eyed.
Though firmly rooted in the traditional realm, Holy Grove’s brand of heavy stretches just beyond the confines of expectation. Those well-versed in modern doom and stoner metal will find some surprise (and promise) in Holy Grove’s sophomore effort. The group picks up where left off on their debut, but sound like they have a better sense of who they are and where they’re going. With II, they’ve made the kind of record that’s finely tuned and nuanced while maintaining accessibility. The perfectly measured songwriting is a welcome reprieve from the intimidation tactics of enormous compositions that sprawl to absurd length or are so densely composed that it’s impossible to remember what happened three minutes ago. There’s really nothing amiss on II: it’s efficient, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s wholly invigorating and captivating. Still, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind about the genre at large, but it does serve as one of the year’s better entry points for new listeners. Why? Because doom rarely feels this good.