Staring down a dark tunnel of grief after the loss of their bandmate Tom Searle, Architects created Holy Hell with their pain. Released on 9th November via Epitaph Records, the album is the first release for the UK quintet since founding guitarist and songwriter Tom passed away in 2016 of melanoma skin cancer.
The band have had to process the loss in more ways than one, losing their primary songwriter as well as their beloved brother and bandmate. Within the documentary Holy Ghost, the members of Architects were honest in saying that the process of making the album came with insecurities; this band hitting significant peaks of success was suddenly having to start anew. The contrast of their stature as a band and newbie uncertainty was something that understandably inspired nervousness. Architects described it as a team process in bringing the songs to life, including songs that Tom had created prior to his death. They’d also welcomed Josh Middleton into the band; a guitarist that the members of Architects were not only close to, but someone that Tom had wanted to have on board.
Holy Hell marks a regrouping for Architects, and a glimpse at the personal world one finds themselves in when they lose someone they love. In Dan’s words “My brother was the songwriter. He died, and we’re carrying on without him and I’ve written the album about that. So it sort of engulfed my life, and everything to do with it is about my life. So you couldn’t really think of anything more personal.” And there, emblazoned on the vinyl insert – fittingly encircled and fading into a dark kaleidoscopic void are the words “For Tom”.
In my exploration of the album, I was only at the first verse of first track “Death Is Not Defeat” and was already tearing up. The album opener seemed to speak as a person on the cusp of dying, or at least someone recognising the inevitable cycle of life that affects us all. Lyrically referring to it being ‘in our design’ coupled with the statement of ‘Don’t be afraid, we all cross the same line’ came across as graceful reassurances toward loved ones or toward those who are not yet at the same acceptance of death, or the balance of life and death; knowing that ‘the flame must decay’.
Thematically “Death Is Not Defeat” directly ties into Architects’ previous album All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us and the final track “Memento Mori” (which literally translates to ‘remember that you have to die’). As bitter of a pill as it is to swallow, we’re all mortal beings and destined to die, regardless of how much we are loved. Though I’m admittedly not well-versed in Architects’ discography to expect that I’ll be able to spot all of the homages to their earlier work (and affectionate nods toward Tom with these choices), lyrically “Memento Mori” links into “Death Is Not Defeat” with shared phrases and words, most impactfully at the bridge.
Blending stunning orchestral moments and heartwrenching fire, stepped down riffs and plunging beats make for an album opener that is as captivating as it is emotionally impactful. It feels serene and fluid at times before bursting into flames at others. Falling into bending guitar savagery, the bridge throws punches while orchestral searching runs swiftly underneath. We’re intriguingly left teetering on the precipice at the end of the track.
“The everlasting sleep returning through the veil
Far beneath the deep, another soul sets sail”
“Hereafter” follows, which (after infinite listens since its release as a single) I’m somehow now ‘trained’ to tear up about before the first verse is even over, anticipating the emotional thump. With the track’s title operating as both a reference to life after death (ie. “The hereafter”) as well as defining a point of change (as in “from now on”), it’s a deceptively simple choice that expresses much.
“Hereafter” is a sonic marriage between polished smoothness and curious self-perception with thunderous blows that reflect the beating that life has dealt. Plunged into a world of darkness and confusion, we’re faced with the need to ‘find a way’ to heal instead of staying in survival mode (unnecessarily). Expansive choruses shower the listener with a push to break into something new, while also painting how dire things are.
Lyrical metaphors that again tie in with earlier pieces of music capture a state of deprivation and an attempt to carry on living life while destroyed on the inside. It’s hard not to empathise and be emotionally rocked when these admissions pour out with full vocal fire from Sam Carter, resonating with experiences of a going-through-the-motions life, and having to pick oneself up while also feeling ill-equipped to do so.
This change in perspective and attempt to make sense of the pain is beautifully expressed with a standout riff; noticeably shifting the world on its axis both in sound and also with visual angle in the music video. Directed by Jeb Hardwick, the music video dances a line between real and unreal, using visual metaphor to pull us into the thick of the inner storm that is being faced, and staring at the confusing spectacle of death.
Third track “Mortal After All” opens with electronic pulses before we’re led into crashing gigantic waves of heaviness and swiftly dragged into the first verse. Struggling to keep up, it’s a brutal thrust reflecting the fact we’re all on our way toward death, regardless of if we accept it or kick and scream in refusal.
Intricate rapidfire riffs fiercely paint this track, along with a flowing symphonic experience and synth beats. But my focus is pulled toward the lyrics of “I know there’s a part of me doomed to face infinity”, and a subsequent curiosity as to the perspective of death that Architects hold. My impression is that though they’ve accepted this inevitability of death, they feel mortality breathing down their neck like a threat: ‘All of us hostages staring down the throat of the screaming abyss’. We have no say in the matter, and we can’t fight it.
With punishing rhythms, we’re encased in a melting pot of layers that are at the same time precise and smooth as well as pummeling and demanding. Unnerving tones hover a thudding breakdown, and audible strings melding with soaring guitar herald a drop into an impressive multilayered end.
The static and haunting violin melody of “Holy Hell” is unnerving from its outset, ripping us into a headfirst dive into whatever is coming. Ever since I heard the album title, I’d wanted to know what Architects had intended by it, and I’m still not sure if I fully understand, with this song as further information. With references to ‘the gates’ and ‘paradise’ (among others), my assumptions go toward religion, and wonder if this is Architects exploring how faith can exist alongside the pain of grief.
Searing vocals lay out a looming end of times, oozing severity and dragged downward by dense guitar. It’s a dark sonic ‘picture’ (powerfully and beautifully painted), plunging into what feels like the lowest of the experience of grief. Despite the defeat into the darkness there are references to something precious contained within the experience of earth-shattering loss, that ‘there’s gold buried in the blue’.
On this idea, Dan Searle-Desbiens (Architects’ drummer and Tom’s brother) shared that Tom had looked upon his cancer as a ‘teacher’, and that it had made him a better person in a sense. “You can go through terrible things and come out a better person at the other end of it. You can come out as maybe a happier person. There’s growth and evolution in going through those nightmarish situations that befall us all at some point or another. I think we kind of just have to deal with it, just have to face it.”
“Holy Hell” was most musically impressive to me from the bridge onward in particular, where the downward sinking has a momentary breather. There we’re drunk on inevitability and embracing the ‘fuck it’ state of losing everything. Thrown to the flames of the chorus, haunting strings couple with blast beats, feeling like the peak of the entire track. The outro was an absolute treat of audible bass from Alex Dean, downward sinking, rhythmic stuttering, and static slides that leave a lone violin.
“Damnation” opens simply and smoothly, feeling fresh and cool, and I’m wondering if this is a surrender/acceptance of grief. But heaviness and grit slams into us, and existential questions set a scene of frustration.
For some reason I found this track tough to spend time with, taking some time to feel like I ‘got it’, once pushed to take a wider perspective by way of meaning. I had found myself frustrated with the lyric “If hope is a prison then maybe faith will set me free”, not necessarily understanding it fully. Architects seem to be sharing an evolution of the lyric from “Gone With The Wind”, where Tom’s hope to find for himself a cure for his cancer had grown into turning to faith.
By taking more of a wider perspective, I saw the track as our human existences being observed by a higher power, and that the irregular and stuttering rhythms seemed reflective of this struggling/suffering experience of survival that we’re part of. The questionings of this grand plan that we’re vulnerable to seemed to come coupled with embracing our own capabilities and powers of responsibility: “It’s time to confess, I haunt this flesh, I answer my own prayers, I bid my own despair.”
There’s a lot that I don’t understand here still, and I saw this as the ‘personal’ factor of Holy Hell in action. This album isn’t for me, for reviewers, nor for anyone else aside from Architects and Tom. We are invited into the experience and whether we understand it or not isn’t really the point. Grief doesn’t have to be understood.
Sixth track “Royal Beggars” draws us into the coping mechanisms of grief. As shown powerfully in the Lewis Cater music video, the use of distractions or numbings to cope are sped up, ultimately turning into self-injury; literally harming themselves in attempts to find an escape from the emotional pain. And no one is coming to save them from themselves.
This track is the second instance of Architects referring to a throne lyrically. I’d wondered if it had reflected the privilege of life/existing and the metaphor of our lifetime as our reign. Whether correct or not, it fits with this suffering that is being endured due to loss. Daily being raked over emotional coals, and living without hope, faith, or solutions, Architects are alive and “Left for dead”. They are merely going through the motions of existing and no one around them is coming to solve this in a meaningful way.
The track is a study in contrasts, which may be jarring to some; having piano and gentle harmonies as present as heaven-shaking screams of frustration. Slow, hefty riffs and enraged screams of “Royal Beggars” form the darkness that comes paired with the lightness of floaty vocals over synth melodies. As a listener, I found the visuals combined with the momentarily delicate honesty in conjunction with the more emphatic screams to be powerfully moving. The beautiful calls for someone to notice what they’re going through (which soon burst into full rage) was heartwrenching.
Screaming hard (“overflowing with rage”), the heartaching track calls for recognition and freedom from the invisible cage they’re encased within, and perhaps even more widely to actually see and embrace pain of others around them.
“Are you listening? You may not have noticed, we have totally lost our way.”
“Modern Misery” seems to be a continuation of the themes in “Royal Beggars”, taking the disconnect felt in their coping with grief further, and seemingly more globally. Lyrically, lines like “Now we can’t see the forest, cause there’s no light in the black hole” could be seen to reflect our own insular existences that prevent us from being aware of all that’s happening around us – whether that’s being unaware of emotionally broken people beside us, or crumbling societies.
In our disconnect and lack of awareness, being ‘plagued by modern misery’, we’re merely leeches in our existence, instead of having the vibrance that saw us previously ‘run with the wolves’. The track could be seen as something of a turning point for someone who has had to endure something like grief; sinking lower and lower before recognising that there’s still life in them, and therefore still a potential to live this fully. Perhaps even fuller than ever before.
I feel this most impactfully at the bridge, where aggressive ‘wake the fuck up’-vibing vocals and plunging guitar push responsibility at this half-lived, slave existence. An expansive and shining melodic shift is freeing and affirming of how much more is possible, akin to an open door beyond numbness – in grief or otherwise.
This turning point and its lightness filters through into “Dying To Heal”. Angular riffs and striking beats accompany emotively wrung screams that are sharing what they’ve learned from the trenches of loss. Drums are a standout on this track, adding to the sense of intense pressure and offering a truly majestic building pre-chorus.
Dense verses seem to reflect how the darkest corners of the maze of grief are oppressive and beckoning toward death in themselves. I’ve found my listens to this track to be powerfully moving, seeming to reflect how the worst experience of darkness is what eventually brought a significant learning – a glimpse of hope for those who can’t yet see it. As with the numbness and disconnect reflected in “Modern Misery” and “Royal Beggars”, “Dying To Heal” plainly lays out that allowing ourselves to feel, no matter how hard it may be, is the only way out.
I’m in love with this track for its sentiment and how stunningly it expresses this musically, in particular the bridge, where razor edges of survival/coping are walked along like a tightrope, where pain or heartache is so sharp that it’s hard to breathe, and where the pressure might kill you. By asking us to ‘hold a flame’ to their words in the darkness, Architects are offering anyone in similar circumstance a glimmer of a belief, and something to hold onto, that there’s another side of this, and to be with the ‘now’ of it. Remember:
“Enough pressure will create a diamond”
Whether planned or not, the tracklisting appearance of the raw and defeatist “The Seventh Circle” after “Dying To Heal” has me see it as genuine in the journey of grief: An unending journey of ebbs and flows. This super sick and heavy track makes me instantly affectionate for it in all of its unrefined rawness, seeming to veer into something more ‘experimental’ than the others of Holy Hell. It lasts less than 2 minutes, but I can’t get enough of it, with those layers of guitar lurking in the background, its aggressive drumming, and the rapid shifts between idling and flooring it. It’s a raw and rough outburst of how bad things feel, to the point of preferring oblivion than the ‘war’ of existing.
“Doomsday”‘s appearance now after this track (and every other before it) really carries a weight to it for me, like a heavy exhalation. With the other tracks leading into this, “Doomsday” takes on the vibe of a summarisation of the experience, as well as the things they’ve learned along the way, and also how hard it continues to be.
“Doomsday” hits deliciously hard and its riffs are perfection, as is its sense of complexity in trying to take a tangled internal experience and make a smooth path forward. They are having to make sense of this; with how they feel and with how others are interacting with them about it.
The band members soon remain only as particles of light; as these malleable souls, and the imagery shows a person who was in meditation ascending into light. The video closes with that same person connecting the light above them to the light in their palm, feeling like a powerful connection across space and time, and a new understanding.
How do you pen the last chapter on a book about grief? Is there any end to grief or is it a never ending experience of riding upon the waves or struggling to keep your head above? “All is not lost” fittingly washes over us repeatedly throughout the final track “A Wasted Hymn”. Its repetition takes on presence as both a reassurance and a reminder.
Torturous violins gnawing away at our emotions coupled with the reassurance are fitting for the idea of peaks and troughs, light and dark, and the point of deciding to ‘sink or swim’ when faced by the worst pain of your existence. The idea of death being the cost of life and love is shared here also; an undeniable bitter pill to swallow. It’s not a triumphant happy ending, but it’s a realistic one, where the survivors continue on as best they can, with what they have, and the time they have – fully embracing their mortality.
“Can you live a life worth dying for?”
Having explored Holy Hell, I now fully understand the sentiment that Dan had shared about the album, describing it as being ‘about pain’. Specifically “the way we process it, cope with it, and live with it.” Architects have taken us into dark and very real moments of their own pain at the merciless hand of grief, which can also be embraced by listeners suffering their own unique emotional pain. Full of questions which may never be adequately answered, core-rattling fears, and hopeful reassurances, Holy Hell offers a non-judgemental companion in the dark, as well as encouragement to embrace whatever spark of life still exists within us.
The eleven tracks couldn’t be more honest in taking us with Architects into the oppressive black hole of loss, echoed by exceptional musicianship and sharp production (by Dan Searle-Desbiens and Josh Middleton). Static and electronic effects are as at home here as metalcore intricacy and blast beats, and the presence of strings provides a soundtrack for aching hearts. In amongst the grief there is possibility though, shared with occasional hope-laden expansion and ethereal moments.
In Holy Hell, Architects are sharing their understandings of mortality, as well as observations of the human penchant for avoiding pain. When you’re left for dead, you’re forced to choose to sink or swim, and swiftly learn what it takes to survive, and the thought process that go into making that choice. The world looks very different after that. Architects have been through a transformation and Holy Hell is the powerful result.
Eleven honest snapshots of pain, sonically and lyrically capturing the toughest moments of the human experience with beauty, fire, and power. Strong metalcore enhanced by emotive strings and effects to paint an immersive and intelligent experience of pain.
Though perfectly fitting for grief, it was tough going through some of the denser moments of the album.