Slow Sundown by Holy Motors

From the Blog

Slow Sundown by Holy Motors

Michael McKinney




Recommended if you like Beach House, Widowspeak,
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi
Favorite Tracks: 1, 7, 4
FCC: None

Holy Motors are no strangers to cinematics. The Estonian five-piece is ostensibly named after a 2012 cult-classic French film, and there’s reason to believe them: their Bandcamp page advertises them as a ‘dark twang & reverb band from a nonexistent movie’ that ‘bows to engines and echoes and film-directors’. Even without these elements, the listener would be hard-pressed not to make the connection upon pressing play on Slow Sundown, the group’s debut LP. It’s immediately clear that these claims are no lip service; this is widescreen music whose dedication to an aesthetic makes it play as much like an art-house flick as it does an album. Its final track is the only one without vocals, and it feels like credits should be rolling while it plays. But while it feels like its cinematic counterpart may have been abstract and lethargic, a more fitting companion may be a downtrodden spaghetti western film; behind the curtain’s vibrant mix of reds lies a vast expanse of sand.

It may seem strange that a group of twentysomethings from northern Estonia put out a record that sounds so thoroughly like the mythologized version of the American West, but this romanticizing spills across media, borders, and centuries. Many composers have made their name scoring shootouts, Ennio Morricone most famously among them (most famously: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, and, recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, among many others); and in 2011, Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi released Rome, a record that milked the westerns of their youth and served as a soundtrack for one yet to be filmed.

Beyond a musical arena, America itself went through such a period, when the California Gold Rush helped lead to San Francisco’s population increasing three-hundredfold between the years of 1847 and 1852; and in 1986’s America, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was enamored with the desert, saying that ‘the silence of the desert is a visual thing, too. A product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to reflect it. There can be no silence up in the mountains, since their very contours roar. And for there to be silence, time itself has to attain a sort of horizontality.’ In other words, Holy Motors, and what they’re doing, are nothing new – instead, they’re part of a long line of knowingly out-of-place artists.

Slow Sundown, then, recalls this tradition. What Baudrillard wrote of expanses of deserts and the flattening of time, the group’s three guitarists conjure in their playing: dark, mournful, arid, and thoroughly romanticized. Nearly every track revolves around the sonic landscapes they make, leaving Ellian Tulve to deadpan her way through them. The drums trade in a foundation of snares and toms but build upon the guitars’ desolation with washes of cymbals. On a purely aesthetic level, this is the sound of a band moving in lock-step: everything in service of a single vision. In theory, it’s a brief record, running just over thirty minutes. In practice, it could go on forever.

The lyrics, too, contribute to this sense of isolation and endlessness: the first words on the record are “Under the moon / He’s watching / Behind the gloom / They’re drowning,” and it never quite lets up from there. Tulve sings in an unending sigh reminiscent of any number of dream-pop vocalists (but most clearly Victoria Legrand of Beach House), rendering her voice more of textural tool than that of a writer’s. This isn’t to say that her lyrics don’t matter – there’s plenty of good writing here – but that doesn’t feel like her aim. Instead, it’s about the way her elongated syllables play with the guitar lines, the weightlessness they lend to the compositions, the imagery repeated throughout – love and heartbreak and loss, all framed underneath the grandiosity of the sand and moon and stars.

Even on a record concerned with a uniformly blurry vision, some moments stand out. Early single “Sleeprydr” is perhaps emblematic of much of what the record aims for: unnerving nothings from Tulve (“Sometimes when you are sleeping / I take you for a ride”), loping, windblown guitar lines, and a pervading stillness in the air. It eventually culminates in a guitar emerging out of the heat haze, filling the air with a solo that slowly unspools until its pummels of reverb grow enormous. They employ a similar trick on “Signs,” a number fueled by an insistent synth-guitar pulse and an unusually driving tempo. But its initial pace turns out to be a trick as the drums speed up: tumbling over themselves in a rare turn away from restraint, compressing the sounds until everything – the interweaving guitars, the synth, the cymbals – turns into a dull roar.

“Signs” also demonstrates the keen sense of pacing Holy Motors bring to Slow Sundown: taken on its own terms, it’s an absolute piledriver of a song. Put next to seven other tracks, it functions more readily as a thematic break, with the increased tempo making it a sprint that makes the next number feel funeraleal rather than mopey – both fitting, but substantially different, reads. Even the outlier, in other words, fit the broader picture here; it just takes its time and uses a different angle, offering a different context for other parts of the record along the way. Beyond the calibration period that track demands, the other seven all fall into a similar enough camp that liking them is likely an all-or-nothing proposition.

But while they’re in a similar thematic ballpark, most tracks use the record’s central aesthetic as a foundation to explore different ideas from, making slight tweaks to the base to come out with meaningfully different results. “Honeymooning” is powered by its snare, meandering guitar, and organ, with Tulve’s sighs providing variation upon a theme; “Valley” uses similar elements but pushes the vocals to the forefront and gives the band a slight swing; and “Silently for Me” is the quintet taking on a ballad in style if not in content. “I Will Try,” notably, has the group tuning their melancholy down a bit more, with everything a bit slower, lower, and more morose. Not everything lands as well as it could – “Silently for Me” and “Ghost of Heart” are notable only for the former’s elegance and the latter’s hushed guitar interplay, with neither doing much beyond cultivating the atmosphere other songs already help form. Beyond those two, Slow Sundown manages the impressive balancing act of aesthetic consistency without falling into monotony. Holy Motors’ setting of choice may stay the same, but they rarely stand still.

Maybe the thing that was so intoxicating about the American west, the place that inspired so many stories, treasties, and dreams, wasn’t the place at all. Maybe the sandstorms and pebbles and infinite spans of flat, untamed land was secondary to what they signified. In much of the art produced about the American west, the idea of infinity appears again and again. To the flood of people who traveled to San Francisco in 1848, it may have been promises of unending wealth in the streams; to Morricone and Tarantino, it may have been the wells of human struggle, perseverance, and bravado; to Baudrillard, it was the sheer expanse of the land. With Slow Sundown, five Estonians have tapped into the same vein all of these previous explorers found, exploring the mythology of the desert and creating something that would soundtrack any of those visions perfectly.