Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Appalooza - The Holy of Holies (2021)

Country: France
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Feb 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Twitter

Formed in 2012 in Nantes and on their second studio album, Appalooza are kind of a combination of everything I missed out on when I drifted away from music in the early nineties after most of a decade of deep diving into rock and metal. They claim to be half Alice in Chains and half Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures, meaning grungy alternative rock and stoner rock, but with a sense of creativity that adds to that particular very nineties mixture.

What I found is something a lot more creative than I expected from that description. For most of two songs, they are indeed the mix they suggest, maybe with a higher proportion of Alice in Chains than merely half but then, three and a half minutes in to Snake Charmer, with the song proper ended, they roll into something wild and completely different. It's a little bit surf, a little bit rockabilly, a little bit spaghetti western, and something I'd expect to be on the soundtrack of an outlandish cult movie like, maybe, Six-String Samurai.

As I worked through the album, I kept finding sections like that that blew my mind, often to wrap up individual songs and they're wildly varied. Reincarnation has a space rock coda. Conquest drops into a echoey guitar piece that starts very bare but gets increasingly complex. Azazael drops even further, to fade out entirely a capella. Nazareth and Thousand Years After are variants on this theme. The former doesn't switch but extends instrumentally until we're almost in a trance, one that extends thirty seconds into Conquest, as if Appalooza have zero regard for their advertised song lengths. The latter switches into an oompah section—I was waiting for Tom Waits's voice to show up—but eventually returns to the actual song.

These wild endings really shook up my opinion of The Holy of Holies. Usually, I judge albums on their songs: how good they are, how varied they are, how consistent they are. Here, the songs are good, all of them playing in the same alternative/stoner rock ballpark but without any of them sounding quite like any other, which is a much appreciated trick. How I wish so many other bands could master that! But the endings elevate everything, like they're a colourbox of interludes to keep us on the hop and visit each new song without still being tied to its predecessor.

Reincarnation pulls back from the thick sound of the openers so the guitar can become a psychedelic factor, teasing us more than bludgeoning us. Nazareth keeps that vibe and renders it more exotic, but adds progressive drumming in a Tool vein, which dominates. That rolls into Conquest too and returns in Azazael. Distress has a prowling feel to it, led by a glorious bass and enhanced by effective backing vocals and vocal play; it's like Saigon Kick heavied up the Peter Gunn Theme. Canis Majoris is a ballad really but, for this band, that means something unlike what you're expecting from a ballad.

I liked this from the outset, but not as much as I ended up liking it. It felt like a solid 7/10 until Snake Charmer shifted into its coda and, from that point on, it kept reinventing itself so effectively that my rating simply had to go up, even without anything particularly standing out above its peers. Maybe I dig Reincarnation and Distress more than anything else, but they're not objectively better; they just speak to me while others may speak to you. The sheer variety is a huge selling point and it tells me that, if the band's sound comes from Alice in Chains and Queens of the Stone Age, it's really the creativity of Them Crooked Vultures that shapes them most.

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