Review Summary: An anomalous, criminally obscure masterpiece.
One fine evening, I was listening to music on YouTube and happened to see this album's second track, The Tower, in my suggested videos list. I knew that Holocaust were a NWOBHM band that wrote The Small Hours, a song Metallica covered for their 1987 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited
. Curious, I figured I'd listen for probably a minute or so before getting bored and clicking off. But after a strange intro of reversed guitars and a muffled, barely audible recording of a tarot card reading, some amazing and unique riffs that sounded almost nothing like any metal I've heard (except for Voivod maybe, circa Dimension Hatross
or Angel Rat
) came blaring through as the song quickly settled on a beat seemingly cribbed from early-80s new wave. A melodic sensibility smacking vaguely of post-punk permeated the song's guitars and vocals, but before things got too comfortable, thrash metal riffing gradually came in as flutes and cellos accentuated the song's sudden darker turn. The pace picked up some until the song eventually turned into an all-out technical thrash metal workout, before transitioning yet again into a section with trippy layered vocals atop riffs vaguely reminiscent of Killing Joke's first couple albums. This built into an amazing crescendo with the singer holding some effective long notes beneath this captivatingly eccentric guitar playing that sounded vaguely angular yet also melodic, almost soothing even. But soon after, the song built up dark, dissonant tension again, before finally bookending itself with the same bizarre sounds it began with.
This was my introduction to the almighty Hypnosis of Birds
, the cryptic, eclectic, and absolutely brilliant third studio LP released under the Holocaust name, and I was in awe. How could I have missed something so fascinating and unique, that also managed to check most of my boxes in music taste, including some I didn't know I had" The answer is that Holocaust's works beyond The Nightcomers
and The Small Hours have been glossed over by music fans in and outside the metal community, despite these works containing no small amount of truly stellar music.
This is particularly egregious given the significant evolution the band underwent following their dissolution and reformation. Hypnosis of Birds
represents the second of the band's major stylistic shifts, the first being the uncompromisingly heavy yet compositionally intricate The Sound of Souls
EP, which can easily be classified as progressive thrash metal. But if the wordy paragraph detailing the many twists and turns of The Tower wasn't indication enough, suffice to say this album's range of influences is more varied and a bit difficult to fully pin down. Mind you, The Tower is the most adventurous and lengthy track on the whole thing, but the other tracks are quite eccentric in their own ways. For example, Mercier and Camier runs just a second over three minutes, yet in that time contains an ambient+spoken word intro, a section highly reminiscent of jangle pop played with metallic distortion, thrash riffs with cowbell atop, jerky prog metal rhythms, infectious high-register noodling, and a couple transfixingly good riffs before closing on another spoken-word sample, this time from a passage from Samuel Beckett's novel of the same name.
Songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist John Mortimer must've been on a hell of a creative streak, as surprising and brilliant moments are constantly abound on this album. Sometimes they come as a complete surprise from tracks that are seemingly straightforward. The most openly aggressive number, Book of Seasons, seems to be a brief midpaced thrash romp, until a flute just barges in during the chorus, at first seeming a little out of place but later on neatly complimenting the guitars halfway through, which themselves get steadily more dissonant until the song closes on an eerie note and fades into the aforementioned Mercier and Camier. Then there's Into Lebanon, which begins in a doomy, slow-paced fashion. Not much atypical goings-on, save for the return of the flute which accentuates the song's gloomy mood. After a couple minutes the song seems to be quieting down, until suddenly it just winds itself back up and then explodes into double-bass intensity beneath Mortimer's harshest shout of the whole album. ***ing phenomenal.
The glumness isn't exclusive to the first half of Into Lebanon, though. The short instrumental Summer Tides is soft and calming on its surface, but the melody hides a deeper loneliness, which is built further upon by the thick reverb the rhythm guitar is caked in, bringing to mind a spacious, vacant room, or perhaps a gentle "summer tide" observed in total solitude. But when talking about lonely melancholy, the best example on the album is the title track, which kicks the whole record off by already taking the listener for a loop in the span of two riffs. The first is dark and foreboding, as you'd expect a metal riff to be, but the second sounds a little more unsure, introspective even. From here, the song alternates between some pretty heavy riffs and some interesting twists and turns, and then about halfway through, it fully transitions into something really beautiful as Mortimer's guitar work gets more and more atmospheric. Things quiet down for a bit as his soft singing takes center stage almost entirely alone, but then the guitars come back in this sweeping, breathtakingly beautiful fashion, building this wall of atmosphere that adds so much to the song's mood. After three more incredible riffs in the span of 70 seconds, the song closes on some of the few metal lyrics to ever impact me on an emotional level.
"In spite of all that's said and done
The complications run
It all makes simple sense in the end
We all need to hold
And need to be held"
From his extraordinary compositions, to his eccentric singing (which brings to mind a mix of Night Time
era Jaz Coleman and Voivod's own Snake, occasionally channeling Dave Mustaine as well), to his Piggy-influenced guitar playing, to his lyrics which draw from spirituality, literature, history, and even his beloved homeland of Scotland, it's obvious that John Mortimer is the star of the show here. But the other two main performers deserve a round of applause as well. Steve Cowen displays quite a bit of versatility on this album, be it his fills and grooves in the downtempo title track, or the aforementioned double bass goodness of Into Lebanon, or the energy he displays in upbeat tracks like Mortal Mother & Mercier and Camier. Even better is David Rosie's excellent bass playing, which adds even more to the unique feel of the album. Mortal Mother, a thrashy proggy post-punk stomp in the runnings for my favorite track on the whole album, has him laying down this bouncy bassline which immediately brings to mind the Smiths. When Mercier and Camier really starts up, just listen to how he brilliantly ascends on the second go-around of the song's opening guitar riff. Or listen to the bass riff underneath the chorus of Into Lebanon, right before Mortimer sings the song's title. Even when he's just supporting the rest of the band with some low end, like on the lively Cairnpapple Hill or the lumbering In the Dark Places of the Earth, he manages to add a lot to the song. The icing on the cake is that you can actually hear the bass damn well, as unlike many a metal music producer/mixer/recording engineer, they had the good sense to crank the bass up! The album's overall mix, with clicky drums, loud bass, a huge guitar sound, and echoey vocals, makes the unique vibe of the album come together even better.
With all this talk of varying moods and genre soup mishmashing, this album might sound a bit obtuse and intimidating. But aside from its few tech-thrash excursions and occasionally angular riffing, Hypnosis of Birds
mostly maintains a certain level of accessibility. It's often quite catchy, charmingly distinctive without feeling at all gimmicky or esoteric, and truly progressive without being concerned with fitting as many time changes into one song as possible. It is uncompromisingly unique, with even the most "normal" songs being chock-full of subtleties that continually reveal themselves after repeated listens. It even dares to end on a post-punk/alt/prog rock song, Caledonia, which contains almost no traces of metal at all. That song not only rules, but is one of the best on the album. Then again, it's almost hard to choose favorites on an album as good as this, for Holocaust's Hypnosis of Birds
is a moody, boundlessly original masterwork cranked out in total obscurity by a trio of talented musicians who would never achieve even a fraction of the wide acclaim they deserved for such an astounding record. If occasionally thrashy prog metal utilizing elements of post-punk, new wave, and even jangle pop sounds up your alley, stop playing yourself and give this a spin asap.