Review Summary: The final album of Holocaust's truly progressive era, with yet more unexpected eccentricities.
NWOBHM stalwarts turned progressive metallers Holocaust dared to take their music to unique and unexpected territories after roaring back from hiatus in the late 80s. Yet their excellent and highly creative releases went largely overlooked, and this album is unfortunately no exception. Despite this, Holocaust found the courage to be
in the face of adversity with another damn good album. The first time I heard this one, I found it just alright, but there are so many subtleties and great moments that reveal themselves with repeated spins, and indeed, my opinion of this album changed for the far better in due time.
All of their previous records up to this point (save perhaps No Man's Land
) brought forth a totally distinct sound from one another, and The Courage to Be
certainly has a soul of its own compared to their other proggy releases. It doesn't thrash like The Sound of Souls
, it's often much more metallic than the very melodic new-wavey Hypnosis of Birds (though it does recall that album at certain points, more on that later), and it's not a grand concept statement like Covenant
. What's more, the production is actually sharp and contemporary for once, and they've even finally tuned their guitars down a full step. ("Their" guitars as John Mortimer is no longer the sole guitarist, being joined by one Iain McKenzie; this doesn't effect the music much, though.)
Yet it does sound like the same band that released all those albums. John Mortimer's longing warble is still there, the music still often lapses into melancholy, and the songwriting is still creative and varied. But from the opening track, you'd be forgiven for expecting a radical shake-up from Holocaust's prior works, as the Celtic sound the opening old-fashioned acoustic guitars evoke are pretty new for this band. This serves as the intro to a folk-influenced progressive metal masterpiece of a track, as these acoustic guitars lead in to a main riff that just feels larger than life. The Collective is an amazing song, one of my absolute favorites by this band, and a great start to the album. That opening buildup and payoff I mentioned is executed just perfectly
, the work of a damn good songwriter. When the electric guitar kicks in and that double bass gets going, the song immediately takes on this "epic" vibe to it. And it continues with a conveyor belt of great riffs and triumphant lyrics sung with enthusiasm. The soft interlude is great too, as new bassist Graham Cowen does a terrific job in interplay with the clean guitar there. John's vocals are just a little shaky, but I'm fine with that. And that outro
, further showing the European folk influences...goddamn, what a track. Just an awesome 7 and a half minutes of music, really one of John Mortimer's best compositions.
So yeah, the first track is the best on the album, but don't think that means they blew their whole load from the get-go, as track two is almost my second favorite. It's an instrumental and a great example of their rarely expressed wonky technical side, with a lot of good riffs and melodies tightly packed into less than two minutes. Reminds me of the short instrumentals on Hypnosis of Birds
. Indeed, if there's any other album by this band that this one recalls the most, it may well be that one. Take for example the beautiful Home From Home. It's probably uncommon to refer to a metal composition as "beautiful", but the mood this song creates is really powerful for me. There's this nostalgic loneliness to it, a kind of happy-sad feeling similar to that captured on Dream House off of Deafheaven's Sunbather
, and I find it impressive that they manage to maintain that mood even with the stomping metal rhythm. It's quite catchy and melodic too, but the way Mortimer sings the chorus continues to hold down the mood perfectly. I love the subtle use of acoustic guitars for accentuation, a fixture of this album.
These more metallic tracks (like the rocking The Age of Reason, a surprisingly heavy end to the album) seem at first glance to be less interesting than what the rest of the album has to offer, but even they pull out some surprises. The "progressive metal" label here comes not from overt technicality—only one track on here repeatedly shifts time signatures with glee—but from the unusual ideas and unexpected left turns that the music take, even with songs that seem rather pedestrian at first listen. For example, Neurosis seems to be plodding and overlong, but then they hit you with that acoustic ending section that reminds you you're listening to progressive
metal. Reminds me of the outro to Symptom of the Universe by Black Sabbath. Fundamentalist seems to be the most typical metal romp up to that point, albeit with some slightly wacky vocal melodies. But then there's those pre-chorus sections, which recall Covenant
's acoustically tinged moments, serve as a sudden left turn into progville. And then that stomping heavy chorus...*** yeah, this song rocks. Spanner Omlette shuffles through some okay riffs for awhile, but around 2 minutes in, starts slooowly taking you for a loop, until this really quirky part slightly evocative of Cardiacs finally comes in, and I don't want to spoil that part too much, but suffice to say that it suddenly feels like the whole song is worth it.
Yeah, the only song on here I think is a failure is From the Mine Shaft to the Bike Shed. There are some good guitar harmonies, but those annoying, stretched out studio edited vocals? Nah. That song can lick myyyy shaaaaft. But it's okay if that song sucks, because the rest of the album has so much to love. Like the moody two-parter When Penelope Dreams. Part 1 is a nice composition, with pretty guitar lines and soft singing from Mortimer, which comes to a quiet, foreboding close. Then Part 2 comes in with harder guitars than part 1, but also a very catchy, pleasantly melodic vocal melody. Mortimer's classic atmospheric riffing style shows itself again here, and it's a joy to behold.
It's an excellent album with a lot to offer, but I wouldn't quite put The Courage to Be
on the same consistent level as Covenant
or Hypnosis of Birds
. The heavy songs are a bit overlong, and From the Mine Shaft to the Bike Shed is just straight up not good. But it is still a creative and interesting album, with memorable and dynamic songs. This would sadly be the last time we'd hear such an awesomely weird album from this band, but Holocaust will surely go down as a wonderful band who, in their prime, may perhaps have been the most underrated, overlooked progressive metal outfit.