A deep introspective trip for the ages, Newcastle-formed, Brighton-based trio Demob Happy’s second album ‘Holy Doom’ peers into the depths of the human soul.
Within each person, there exists good and evil, a yin-yang axis we each try to navigate. There’s a sinner inside every saint. With a gemini spirit, this remarkable full-length pinballs between pure holiness and the lure of the devil, often within the space of one whirlwind song.
In 2017 and looking ahead to 2018, it might seem like darkness is getting the upper hand, but ‘Holy Doom’ is less a reflection of the times and more a crucial, very current look at how we collectively internalise what’s going on in the world. It asks pertinent questions: what lurks inside us? What brings out the darkness we harbour? And how do we combat it?
Before explaining what makes ‘Holy Doom’ such an essential record for the year ahead, it’s important to examine Demob Happy’s place in the world. Six years in the making, 2015 debut ‘Dream Soda’ cemented them as a resolute DIY force who’d played the long game, unwilling to follow any trend, unphased by guitar music’s apparent stale patch. Hailing from their hub on the coast’s Nowhere Man Café, they emerged with a sweat and dirt-stained statement of intent, a rock debut that shunned convention and left every available route open for the road ahead. Their next move was anyone’s guess.
Turn to 2016, however, and collectively the band were under strain. They found themselves a member down – following the departure of Matthew Renforth – as well as being “let down” by a lot of people. “All of us emotionally suffered, all in the space of a few months. It was only in January this year when we started to come out the rut,” states frontman / bassist Matthew Marcantonio.
It’s this relative struggle, and the united spirit they combated it with, which defines this second album. ‘Holy Doom’’s title is split into two halves (‘Holy’ representing our potential for kindness, ‘Doom’ our capability for wickedness), and the album itself follows suit. Whereas ‘Dream Soda’ had the childish, fidgety spirit of popping candy exploding on the tongue, its follow-up looks inwards.
In part, this introspection stemmed from personal problems affecting frontman / bassist Matthew Marcantonio, shortly after the release of the debut. He suffered from depression, anxiety, and a nasty break-up. He wasn’t alone in finding 2016 a trial. Drummer Thomas Armstrong and guitarist Adam Godfrey had struggles of their own. These feelings are often burrowed up and left to fester, but Demob Happy decided to put everything out in the open.
On ‘Dream Soda’, Marcantonio’s lyrics were laced with wild ideas and conspiracy theories, always looking outwards and at the big picture. In his own words, he put to paper “everything I’d learned since I was 18 years old… Since you smoke your first joint and then you start to see the world differently.” He’d shied away from a more personal songwriting style, because of fears he’d resort to clichés or cheesy, woe-is-me emotives. “Thinking about myself was never something I wanted to do. Until it became absolutely clear that I needed an outlet for this stuff. I’d never needed an outlet before. I was fine. My mind and my life was fine. But if you bury [those feelings], things get worse.” As the world around Marcantonio changed, as did his output.
Anyone in love with ‘Dream Soda’’s deranged spirit won’t feel at a loss, however. In tightly-wound second LP highlight ‘Loosen It’, the guitar lines are still dagger-toothed and gristly. ‘Maker of Mine’ bounces off the walls like the debut’s finest moments. But revelations appear through the cracks, like the title-track’s sinister, synth-swept, sleepy-eyed embrace, or ‘Running Around’’s mammoth ebb-and-flow between abstract build and violent noise.
Settling into the same Carmarthenshire, Wales cottage that birthed their debut, the trio wrote ‘Holy Doom’ in isolation – the kind that lends itself to madness. “It’s so isolating out there. None of us can drive. Unless the woman who owns the farm happens to drive past and asks if we need anything from the shop, we’re alone.” They arrived in Wales with a foolproof, exact plan. They had a precise sound in their heads before they collectively put it to tape. Things got weird. Marcantonio and his bandmates drew venn diagrams of “six intersecting circles” and pinned them to the walls. “We had key charts. Symbols for certain feelings evoked in songs.” If one song fell somewhat outside the boundaries for their ultimate objective, it was scrapped. “We got technical and mathematical. Not because it’s calculated, but that’s how our brains function.”
From there, they recorded the bulk of the album in summer 2017 with Ian Davenport (Band of Skulls, Gaz Coombes) in Oxfordshire – save for the drums, where they reunited with ‘Dream Soda’ deskman Christoph Skirl to capture the perfect, crisp sound they required. It was then mixed by Adrian Bushby (Foo Fighters, Muse) and mastered by Geoff Pesche (Pulp, New Order) at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
It baffles some diehard Demob fans, and this writer, as to why they’re not already one of the country’s biggest bands. But they’re a group who thrive in the in-betweens. They’re loud, but not in the jarring, bombastic way that tends to guarantee main stage festival slots. There’s serious restraint at play, what Marcantonio describes as “low-key, small and 70’s.” They’re far more emotionally bare on ‘Holy Doom’, but they don’t resort to wailed choruses and lighters-in-the-air sap.
Throughout their early career, they’ve cited Queens of the Stone Age and The Beatles as big inspirations. And although you can make several direct sonic comparisons to ‘Holy Doom’ and those legendary bands, that’s not 100% the point. “We appreciate what they don’t do,” insists Marcantonio. “What I mean is, you can turn up a Queens record really loud, and it sounds amazing. They haven’t tried to jam loads of guitars, drums and cymbals. It would sound impressive for three seconds, and then your ears would start to bleed.” He continues: “Some bands start out by chasing a hip sound. We’ve wanted to steer clear from that attitude. Perhaps to our detriment. We’ve not been decipherable, or able to be pigeonholed.”
Frankly, it can take time to fall for their subtle, stylish charm. Marcantonio is even attuned with thinking it might take several albums to win people round. “We knew that if we did anything approaching what other bands do, there’s no point. It comes from a place of passion, not wanting to play by the rules. We think if we do our thing, we’ll rise to the top. We don’t see this album as a make or break thing. It’s a stepping stone.” For what it’s worth, ‘Holy Doom’’s themes, sonic touchstones are the complete antithesis to rock’s default mode in the late 00’s. “And that’s exactly what we wanted to be,” Marcantonio smiles.