by Rich Hobson
Rock fans have something of a complicated relationship with labels. Traditionally seen as the enemy to the creative process, the label represents the shackling of talent to commercial whims, boardroom decisions that all too often have no bearing on the creation of actual art. Yet, for all of this enmity, the wider music press can’t help but fall for its indie darlings – SST and the 80s hardcore scene; Sub Pop and the grunge explosion of the 90s; Epitaph and the rise of SoCal punk. Each a litany of loosely connected bands brought together and championed by a passionate few, steadily conglomerating into a scene which could transcend local boundaries and carve their stories into pop-culture folklore to achieve musical apotheosis. The mythology surrounding an indie rock label’s capability to birth giants has become so entrenched within the musical narrative that shrewd eyes are just as likely to watch a label as the acts they champion. And every once in a while, it truly pays off.
You’d have to have been living under a rock (or, more probably – overseas) to have missed the buzz surrounding UK independent label Holy Roar these past few years. Since starting out in 2006, Holy Roar has made a name for itself for championing iconoclastic up-and-coming artists from both Britain and abroad, counting the likes of Rolo Tomassi, Employed To Serve, Conjurer, Møl, and Svalbard amongst its roster throughout its history, each representing a very different, ambitious take on the metal/hardcore template. But for all of their differences, Holy Roar bands have often retained a sense of label identity; a sound which seems ingrained in each and every band regardless of subgenre or style. A smattering of hardcore here, a unique infusion of post-whatever there, and a healthy topping of intense metallic energy left to bake for 6 – 18 months on a smattering of small stages throughout the UK until the music press catches whiff and comes buzzing. Rinse, and repeat.
This description is – for flippancy’s sake – reductive, of course. The individual stories of many of Holy Roar’s bands are every bit as fascinating as you’ve likely read on other scenes in the past; you can’t be subversive when you toe the party line, after all. But the fact remains, that Holy Roarcore (as named by the folks of Metal Hammer) is steadily becoming an identifiable sound and zeitgeist, a collection of acts that bear as many operational similarities as they do musical disparities. Or at least, they do until you stumble across the recently released self-titled debut EP by London-based solo artist A.A. Williams – a stark departure from the disparate territories the label has explored in the past.
The music of A.A. Williams owes nothing to hardcore, post-hardcore or even metal – on the surface at least. Where so many other HR bands offer a sense of enormity, Williams goes entirely in a different direction; going deep where so many others go heavy. In terms of sonic comparatives, her closest contemporaries would appear to be the likes of Chelsea Wolfe, Emma Ruth Rundle or King Woman. But, where the former artists will drown the listener in a sea of noise, the sound of Williams’ self-titled debut EP retains a haunting clarity, everything beautifully mastered in a way that feels more akin to the pitchperfect dark pop sensibilities of Lust For Life-era Lana Del Rey than to something traditionally found in metal – or even rock. Yet, there is a darkness and otherness to the sound which roots it firmly within our scene, a gloom-filled soulfulness which has steadily earned similar artists the tag of “death gospel”.
While the term is still little used at the moment, it serves effectively to capture the root darkness that artists like A.A. Williams, Emma Ruth Rundle or Louise Lemón employ, in particular their exploration of the primordial essence that birthed rock in the first place. The EP itself feels less indebted to delta blues than the latter two artists, employing a complex framework of immersive melodies and soundscapes that feel closer to classical compositions than traditional songs. In turn, the use of stringed instruments creates a constant sense of melancholy which at times borders on otherworldly – think the ghostly overtures of Opeth’s Damnation or softer moments of Blackwater Park. In another time or scene, this could have been tagged as dark pop, goth, or even soul, but at the heart of it all Williams creates music which will intrinsically attract fans of darker musical territories.
Considering the sheer emotional depth of the music, it feels like a constant surprise to be confronted with just how airy each composition is. In not tethering the songs to the lead-anchors of feedback, Williams presents music which exists at the bottom of a dark pit, keenly feeling the absence of light. Whether on the swelling instrumentation of ‘Control’ or the coolly-disconnected ambiance of ‘Cold’ (a track which feels like the spiritual lovechild of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and Scott Walker at his most melancholic), there is something inherently compelling about the sounds captured. In a little under 20 minutes Williams conjures an immersive world which can swallow the listener whole, the four tracks so carefully balanced that it becomes easy to literally lose an hour or so just listening to the tracks on repeat, diving deep again and again.
On the surface A.A. Williams shares very little obvious sonic similarities with the rest of her label alumni. But break the surface and you’ll find an artist who shares the crucial Holy Roar principle of challenging both industry and genre expectations, every bit the equal to her contemporaries and already creating some of the most compelling music of 2019. Good god damn, Holy Roar have done it again.