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Holy Hell! Whole Turns 20

Holy Hell! Whole Turns 20

Whole is a finely packed indie-rock record that easily places itself in the top percentile of its peers.

I don’t know if David Bazan is owed the “cult hero” tag. So often that denotes a sort of under-appreciation. And certainly, Bazan’s work has done a great deal for American indie and folk genres without getting as much applause as it deserves. But, having seen him in three different sold out shows in as many years, the outpouring of warmth for his music is undeniable.

Bazan, now dabbling in electronics and literal house shows, started in much more traditional fair. In their 10-year tenure, Pedro the Lion, his first band, was an indie institution. Less ephemeral than American Football and more straightforward than Sunny Day Real Estate; their instrumentation was traditional for the genre, but as they grew so did their appetite for experimentation. So too did Bazan’s voice evolve into the weary bray that marked songs like “Strange Negotiations” with deep melancholy. But for their debut, Pedro the Lion made something strikingly conventional.

That shouldn’t be taken as an insult. The six-song EP was a distillation of ‘90s indie and slowcore tropes, amplified by excellent playing and the budding Bazan already showing maturity far beyond his years. Whole is a strange experience at first, especially coming from something more recent like Blanco. Bazan’s voice is a crystalline tenor. Only when he really reaches into his throat for the release’s most emotional moments does that cry he would eventually perfect rise into ear range. But Bazan’s lyrical voice was already solidified. “Fix,” the second track, sounds like pure sunshine pop and his lines mirror the smiling background–briefly. Of course, as any good indie-rock song should, it turns dire. Despite his claims he’s “self-sufficient,” the chorus has Bazan scoring heroin from a “friend.” “‘I’ll see you here tomorrow’/…he pats me on the shoulder and sells me a fix.” The specter of a needle rises again on the “Almost There,” which could be a lost Neko Case song. It is, predictably, devastating. And Bazan delivers the best vocal performance of his young career. The flourishing, fusing harmonies on the pre-chorus are haunting, and Bazan finally give into the scream. Hearing him cry “and it never goes away” over and over again is not for the faint of heart.

The title track also mentions a “Mr. fix-it man” and although deeply, deeply unsettling, the recurrent theme mirrors the rather samey musical choices. There are only so many times that a resonant minor chord can be followed by a softly strummed root note. It should be noted that Bazan played nearly every note of Whole, a fine and foreboding undertaking for any musician.
Unfortunately, Bazan finds new ways to explore addiction, but the instruments don’t.

Until the end that is. “Hymn” remains my favorite thing Bazan has done. It’s such a strange little curio, but it carries the emotional tide of Whole over the finish line. It’s the only thing that approaches happy on the EP, perhaps because Bazan just allows interplaying guitar and bass to cruise along without any needles in the mix. It’s a slow burner of a song, tightly contained and perfectly crafted. The rhythm guitar ticks along like a fine-wound watch and the lead sticks to lower notes until the chorus. Then it shimmers. As the title implies, there’s something heavenly about the whole affair. Just before things finally crash into a cacophonous close, the guitars are imitating church bells. More than anything, “Hymn” is a post-rock nugget, something from Grails or Explosions in the Sky done in miniature.

Without the knowledge of what Bazan would go on to do, Whole is a finely packed indie-rock record that easily places itself in the top percentile of its peers. Yes, the music can get a bit soggy, but it’s hard to find slowcore that doesn’t. But, more importantly, it found a band willing to bravely experiment and a lyricist showing more maturity than nearly any of his peers. After years of getting familiar with Bazan’s current work, Whole becomes a fascinating document. It’s the initial seed that would spring into the gnarled, knotty and beautiful tree of his musical career.

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