The Holy Soul – Sign Of The Triangle

The Holy Soul is a group who’ve been watched by a lot of Sydney’s hipsters (not to mention movers and shakers – hence their position on the Reverberation roster) thanks to their extensive gigging, and pretty enviable support slots. Their debut full-lengther’s been eagerly expected by many, though it’s intriguing to note that, despite the critical thumbs-up that they’ve received through their couple of years together, they’ve been cool-headed enough to be seemingly unaffected by the attention, instead working along their rocky cowpoke path at their own particular pace.

So it’s refreshing to note that this album manages to pretty well remove what must be the weirdest dilemma that the four piece – front man and songwriter Trent Marden, guitarist Tim Malfroy, bassist Sam Worrad and drummer Owen Penglis – face: that they’re too nice. The tunes presented here are nasty bastards of things: not much that’s good occurs, and the music is, in terms of drama, what an elderly relative of mine described as “lightning striking the shithouse music”. It’s stuff that’s too nasty to come from guys that look so – well – normal. You don’t expect guys who look like they’ll shout you a beer to be excavating their way spinewards through their lover’s viscera with naught but a spoon, right? But that’s the problem that I think faces the band in their live incarnation – that you’re expecting to see a more grizzled, fucked-up, track-marked and smoke-wreathed bunch of reprobates than The Holy Soul are, and it can shake the viewer a little. It could be rock snobbery, but sometimes you expect that the deliverers of such songs of woe should look more like Ian Rilen than these guys do.

Curiously, though, the spacious, backwoods-airy feeling of Sign Of The Triangle works pretty effectively to dispel the discomfort that’s sometimes visible during the band’s performances. Jon Hunter’s production helps the band create an atmosphere that truly breathes, and that lets the doomy, almost Faulknerian overtones of their music come out. Maybe it’s the country location they recorded in, and maybe it’s the eight-track they recorded to, but there’s something here that sounds… evil. It is, I’m pleased to say, the best capturing yet I’ve heard of the potential that’s shone in the best moments of the band’s performances that I’ve seen.

Sign Of The Triangle appears to be a pretty robust indicator of growth for the band. There’s been a definite expansion in the song writing from the early days, and the performance is pretty assured – to the point where the almost-mandatory version of Swampland that’d fuelled a lot of Scientists references hasn’t been given a look-in.

(That said, it must be noted that Malfroy’s solo playing on the disc does seem to owe a lot of Kim Salmon – and his former Beasts Of Bourbon compatriot, Spencer Jones – in terms of form and fire.)

The lyrics are still occasionally clunky, but when you’re handed such gems as

Well, some people aren’t worth the carbon that they’re based on

(found in the album opener, Dead Town), then you’re willing to be a bit forgiving. (The gem of this track, however, really is the backing vocals that fit the la-la’d bits of the tune. It sounds as if there’s an orchestra of Fred Gwynnes somewhere just out of reach, moaning their way into the tune before the guitar explodes in some sort of Technicolor conflagration. Tasty.)

The musical arrangements on the album – the band is credited with arrangements, while Marden is credited with the actual song writing – seem to borrow fairly heavily from the reverb-drenched end of the spectrum, with a good dose of punk spike thrown in. Echoes of Jeffrey Lee Pierce channelling Bob Dylan are heard, particularly in the trippingly-flowing lyrics of Marden, while elsewhere, you could swear you were listening to an album by American psychedelic cowpokes Knife In The Water, or the creepily religious Sixteen Horsepower, while tracks such as This Geography Is Killin’ Me brings to mind a funkier Birthday Party. Creditably, the band manages to sound like fans of those artists, rather than slavish copyists, while their enthusiasm in appropriation of certain musical elements manages to come across as rather apropos, rather than just a rip-off.

There are, of course, moments of doubt in that regard. The track Mary’s Tainted Lemonade is certainly the tune that tricked me the most on the album. It begins by sounding like a slightly dodgy version of Link Wray’s Rumble, but then it hits a point where listener expectations are subverted as the song heads off for a psychedelic guitar freakout, framed in drums half-inched from the very best that The Jesus & Mary Chain had to offer. It’s indicative of what the band do best: spin epic, big-sounding songs out of deceptive simplicity, something that’s continued through the length of the album.

This is a different, more confident band to the bunch of guys who knocked out the Love Has Left The City Limits EP, certainly.

There are, pretty much, two types of songs on the album – the broody ones, and the balls-out rockers. While the band’s plenty able to rein themselves in for full dramatic effect, it’s thrilling to hear them rip shit up in a looser style, even if sometimes it sounds like not everyone’s able to keep up. Funeral Plots and Sign Of The Triangle are prize cuts in the speed regard, with the latter conveying a sort of leather jacket sneer that’s particularly appealing.

Each album has to have one song that’s above its compatriots, and on Sign Of The Triangle it has to be Who’s Breakin’ Your Heart. It’s also the tune that seems to be the most Dylan-like, and it’s the one that you can tell is going to end up being covered in the future. Suitably swathed in she-done-me-wrong, it’s a drunken stomp around the wine bottle through which one views one’s navel, and features what’s undoubtedly the most singable chorus on the disc.

The abrasive blast of Roadmaster, a hidden track, brings the album to an end that’s fitting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because a version of the track was included on their self-released demo single, but secondly because it’s a swings-and-roundabouts cover of a Peter Laughner tune. The selection of song indicates that the band’s still connected to their roots, but also that they’ve a fair bit of musical knowledge up their sleeves. It’s a canny reference that only a few will get, but it perhaps underlines something important: these guys not only mine particular veins for their music, but they’re fans of ‘em as well. That’s important, as it sets apart the dilettante from the fanatic, and is indicative of the respective upswing in passion and dedication; something that there’s plenty of evidence of across Sign Of The Triangle.

If one were to be uncharitable, it’d be easy to say that the reason that The Holy Soul don’t get half the shit that Wolfmother do is because only half as many loudmouthed critics of this land have heard of The Gun Club and The Scientists, as have heard of Black Sabbath. The band’s influences are writ pretty large across this album, but this isn’t exactly something that’s unheard of in music, let’s face it. Unlike many rut-creating electro acts locked into the Gang Of Four rulebook, there’s a distinct feeling of possibility with The Holy Soul’s music: that it’ll develop and go somewhere not mapped out in records from twenty years ago. It’s just not entirely dominant yet.

A little more pressing, criticism-wise is the fact that Trent Marden’s vocals on the disc sometimes lack the sturm-und-drang conviction that’s necessary to take his songs of damnation and lost love to the sort of Johnny Cash or Tom Waits level to which they aspire. Nick Cave, for example, leaves no doubt – purely through his delivery – that he’s deadly serious about those instances where he talks about being the worst little girl in Millhaven. This assuredness is something that, I’m guessing, Marden will become a little more familiar with over the next couple of releases. Don’t get me wrong: his delivery is good but there’s a couple of times where the myth of the song’s broken, and you start to think of the vocalist as a songwriter, rather than someone who’s telling you about his life. I, for one, look forward to the day when all the songs these guys slam out are delivered with a touch more brimstone.

In the end, Sign Of The Triangle is: an album that, despite its [few] weaknesses and occasional obvious borrowings, is populated with enough spikes and cobwebs to keep listener interest for a good long while. There are things that can be done better here, for sure, but there’s such a naked and bleeding immediacy to what’s caught on disc that it’s hard to resist. The band’s blend of psychedelia, country, folk and rock is addictive enough to ensure that anyone who’s actually interested in the genres will hang around to see what happens next. This is lucky, as the album perhaps serves best as a taster for what the band will create in the future.

There’s nothing sounding louder here than promise.