As a disclaimer of sorts for my review, I’ve loved every single that Holding Absence have released. The Welsh band appeared on my radar in mid-2017 with the formidable “Penance”, and seemed to carry something I’d not commonly come across in music up to that point. Maybe it was the eye contact of the video, the ink smeared wildness, the vulnerability of the lyric “It’s hard to say out loud, I deserve to be happy now”, or the storytelling thread of a song that’s as thoughtful as it was explosive..
Holding Absence’s debut album has been something I’ve been waiting for for some time. I’ve been impatient, while also knowing that it’s been a somewhat turbulent time with the band, losing and gaining members in recent history. Finding their feet regardless, Lucas Woodland (vocals), Scott Carey (guitar), Chris Smitheram (guitar), James Joseph (bass), and Ashley Green (drums) have produced a self-titled body of work with the assistance of George Lever, who worked with the band on the This Is As One EP with SharpTone Records label mates Loathe.
“It’s hard to forget I’m looking back on a time,
when every beat in your heart was beating for mine”
The most recent single (at the time of writing this), “Perish”, is where Holding Absence starts. With atmosphere-inducing tones, a cool fog descends, bringing a grey aesthetic to our mind’s eye to match the album’s art work. A lengthy introduction of “Perish” doubles as a mood setting for the album as a whole. Beckoning inward, layers of sound collect and grow. Slamming drums are a stand-out feature of the track, making a firm statement of intensity in amongst gentle guitar melodies and vocal honesty.
I won’t ‘reinvent the wheel’ by restating my experience with “Perish”. But every listen easily pulls me into the world of a person who exists under a grey cloud while their lover is basking in the sun. It’s as tense as the erratic beats create, as intimate as the gentler moments reveal, and as impossible as the heart-wrenching choruses show.
Listening to “Perish” gives me a sense of falling downward, and feeling too weak to grip on to anything to save myself, and seeing a loved one high above. What’s also felt is the anguish at things changing outside of one’s control; losing something while there’s nothing you can do about it.
I teared up a little before “Your Love (Has Ruined My Life)” had even fully begun. There was something beautifully hopeful at the introduction, where waves of sound touch lightly before a crashing surf of guitars and drums lands more heavily over them. Breaking through the turbulence and standing in the mist, Lucas explores love as though he’s trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Looking around his world and seeing nowhere to pour his love, it speaks like a shipwrecked heart waiting for rescue. Expanding on this at the thunderous wall-of-sound choruses is the (heavy) sentiment of moving through lifetimes to reattempt a quest for love. Ouch.
The surprising heavy voice edits at the more subdued bridge struck like a knife, where the containment and loneliness is amplified in more ways than one: “Will I ever heal? I just don’t know. But without you, the open world feels so closed.” It’s new to me; the idea of love ruining someone’s life. But if it’s a continuation of “Perish”, it could be understood as truly loving someone but not being able to at the time; failing, losing the lover, and not seeing that anything else is possible for him aside from that person.
If “Like A Shadow” continues the story, we’re existing inside the experience after the breakup. Smitten adoration despite their ‘world on fire’, persistence didn’t solve the fading connection (“How could I make you stay a little longer?”).
Desperation rushes through this third track of Holding Absence like wildfire, trying to hold on to something that doesn’t exist. It’s loud and frantic, even in tender recollections. Thick bass of the second verse is reminiscent of a headache of seeking understanding from a closed door. With (infectious) choruses calling (and echoing) out into the infinite for answers, there’s nothing but memories for comfort. And yet even their delicate softness even reveal how wrong it was (“You waste up all my daylight, and I’m so tired”).
Seemingly destined to overuse the word for this album, ‘thunderous’ is how I’d describe “You Are Everything”. It comes at the listener with full power from all angles, while also carrying delicate elements throughout like ethereal tones and chimes. There’s A LOT that goes on with this track. And I’m emotionally ruined by it. Every time.
Perhaps taking us with them chronologically, Holding Absence’s attention is turned toward music and chasing dreams: Creating instead of remaining shipwrecked and alone. Sinking their love into their music, shows, and the community that’s blossomed around their music, “You Are Everything” seems to capture the hope, work, and heart-filling experience all in one. It could also be understood as a turning point for someone who doesn’t know which direction to focus his heart.
Respecting the work that has gone into not just making music but surviving, and not aspiring for anything to be given to them for free, “You Are Everything” is a tear-jerking celebration of fighting for the life you want, despite the “devil on our shoulders,” or the pain that comes with the effort. As with “Your Love”, death and a repetitive pattern of darkness lingers on the outskirts of the song. This only makes it more heart-wrenching; an ‘I could die happy’-esque statement that is as moving as it is uncomfortable when it’s spoken by musicians you respect. Don’t die, Holding Absence.
“The fire in my heart has lived a lifetime. So I don’t mind.”
Unexpectedly beautiful, “Marigold” appears with just piano and Lucas. It’s a mid-album exhalation of sound, but still tells a meaningful story via a world of flowers. However ‘simple’ sonically, it’s clear there’s been significant production effort on this track, offering a time-slipping/reminiscing experience courtesy of effects and reverberations. I clicked the ‘repeat 1’ button for this piece of music; content to take time with it and immerse these floral references as well as the emotions shared. Beginning in resilience, a blossoming love becomes wilted with separation, distance, and neglect. The chorus of “Marigold, you’ll never know” hangs in the air, weighed down by the sense of regret combined with inevitability – seeing this fade away in front of his eyes.
From the misty fog of a relationship that died, we are then yanked into the heaviness of the following track “To Fall Asleep”. A slamming introduction foreshadows a look at the peripheral misery that has shown up previously. This piece of music will be relatable to those who endure late night dives into pools of perceived inadequacies and worries, especially those who aspire to be better and more than who they see themselves as. Another relatable fact is that despite the nightly sinking down into rabbit holes of emotional darkness, the protagonist doesn’t want to inflict it upon anyone else, even if they seek to help him.
A frustration of wanting to improve yet feeling the impossibility of doing so is echoed by the run of syllables at the chorus, Lucas’s vocal intensity, and the loss of hope crafted by building drums and distant echoes. To me “To Fall Asleep” reflects a sense of not being heard, and the haunting ending of the track seems to have us feel further and further away. There’s no hope to be found here. Not yet, anyway.
“Monochrome” was released as a single last night/today as I continue to spend time with the album, and it is yet another beautiful piece of music from the Welsh guys. It’s also another that sparks tears. A splash of colour in a music video from this black and white band feels completely bizarre, but also is a creatively clever way of expressing an internal state. Lucas is dressed in white, immersed in normal situations while struggling within and feeling at odds at the world. Reflective of an internally challenging situation like depression, we watch Lucas undergoing attempts to heal amongst the brightly coloured folk of the world, with no apparent change.
It’s at the bridge when a sense of fight shows up, that breaks Lucas/the song’s character out of the monotony of the sameness he endures, and the effort and support he’s given without internal change. It’s a nod to the lyrics of “Permanent”, where a logo featuring “You will find a home, you will find a place” persists throughout everything. It also seems to be a nod to the importance of the band for a sense of belonging and purpose (cue the tears again in three, two, one..). He immediately fits in with this black and white world of Holding Absence.
While the song in isolation had felt more specifically about a crumbled past relationship that plays on his mind hauntingly, the differing themes of video and song combine with lyrics such as “I sat in your life with nowhere to hide, and still you couldn’t find me. Maybe you could find me somewhere else that I could be.” He’s more himself, and found a place in his world now, and maybe looking back to things that went wrong when he was otherwise.
Slowing down and expressing a sense of reverence is “A Godsend”. Gorgeously showered in golden ethereal tones and fresh radiant melodies, we bear witness to a desperate prayer for hope, change, and belonging. But it’s not just one prayer. It’s ongoing prayers to a silent deity.
Expressed calmly at first, “A Godsend” continues to expand from soft reverberating beats into fuller calls for help, slowly climbing in intensity – mirroring a growing frustration with a motionless authority. Sentiments like “I’ve been waiting” flow outward, matter-of-factly, which barely hide a sense of defeat. How long do you hold faith before you give up?
It’s yet another song that tackles my soul and wrings deep emotion out of me; apparently shining a light on parts of my own that have at times sought for something, anything, to rescue me from a sense of alienated nothingness. It sparks reminder of times when I anxiously hoped for dreams to come true, with the helping hand of something greater than me (despite not personally following a specific religion), or wished for some sense of belonging to arrive in my heart.
The obvious bass and thunderousness at the end of “A Godsend” coupled with a more intense “I’ve been waiting” continues to intently dredge up a deep sadness, and it’s yet another song on Holding Absence that I’ve met with tears. These songs are the real deal, and a window into true (existential) struggle.
“Misery has a duality in me.”
For the majority of the ninth track, “Last Of The Evening Light”, Lucas’ vocals are buried and the instrumentation takes centre stage. It works to reflect a sense of swimming in many layers of sound; fitting for a suffocating depression or dark perspective on life.
When clarity arrives, we’re reminded of a balance; of day and night, lightness and dark. This flourishes into a fiery sense of frustration and fight, determined to break into the ‘next’ and out of the perpetual loop of darkness. Where’s the light? Is joy a birthright? Rapid streams of thought and question come at the listener toward the end of the track, leaving palpable pangs with the painfully honest lyricism.
It is an absolute privilege to be allowed in to someone’s experience, and this stream of honesty continues into “Purge”. Despite the shortest track of the album at 2:18, “Purge” is in-cred-i-ble. Seeming to rapidly capture a series of life events and tying together many themes of the album, softened piano and tones wrap around the listener like clouds, with Lucas’ angelic voice drifting above them. We’re asked to listen and learn.
“Purge” flows directly into “Wilt”, the last song of the album, and a song that I felt I already knew from first listen. Piano, deeply plunging bass and floaty layers tug at heartstrings easily, at it becomes swiftly apparent that “Wilt” is detailing the end of a partnership. “Wilt”‘s choruses are tough, featuring an anguished state of a farewell, while also being infectiously memorable.
Heart-wrenching, “Wilt” is likely to spark comparisons to Casey with the thoughtful instrumental spaciousness as well as the relatively spoken style of singing at the bridge. The sing-song repeated melody with mild expression (“Just give me a lobotomy”) leans into uncomfortable brokenness, where brain seems to have ‘won’ over heart (mental illness has poisoned the possibility of love) and destroyed his life. As something of a destroyingly beautiful-sad dedication to one that loves the protagonist, “Wilt”‘s promises hit brutally hard emotionally and sonically, and loop around.
“It all meant so so much to me”
When I was thinking ahead for whenever the Holding Absence album might arrive, I expected I might find some atmospheric rock anthems; the kind you could easily imagine being sung powerfully from a stage. I found far more, and I’m not meaning just sonically, even though Holding Absence have put together stunning soundscapes with beautiful gentleness and fiery hugeness (and a personal favourite of mine – dreamy audible bass moments).
Despite having spent a lot of time with the very personal sentiments contained within “Penance” and “Permanent” and “Heaven Knows”, I still didn’t see this intensely personal and deeply emotional collection of music coming. My expectations were seemingly at arm’s length from the potential emotional impact that this band’s music is capable of.
Feelings-centric, it’s important to me that music I listen to inspires emotion as well as contemplation. Holding Absence goes above and beyond in this capacity, with exceptionally intimate takes shared throughout the album. Softened by use of metaphor and double meaning, the album still bleeds vulnerably throughout and reveals something of an internal cage from a number of angles. It’s incredibly easy to get swept up in the experience that’s impactfully shared.
At war within oneself and existing in isolation, our protagonist’s unattainable gems of love and joy are prevented by a broken mind, akin to a fog that has pervaded every element of life. I keep thinking of the “Monochrome” music video in particular and how it captured this so well; an existence of going through the motions of life, and striving hard to be better than how they are, yet still having this thick separateness between the self and others. Impenetrable by love in either direction: Unable to feel it land upon others, nor able to receive its sunshiney warmth. And by extension, not feeling your impact on the world, nor that you belong.
Despite this impenetrability, the eyes still work and can witness (and regret) the missed opportunities, the hurt inflicted upon others, or the ways in which things didn’t happen as they should. And faith and prayer still work too, trying hard to seek answers and support.
This piece of art (the album) isn’t just detailing an insular experience. It has a life of its own in aspiring to leave a trail of crumbs to be found and understood, expressing the powerful importance of music and the importance of those who do understand. Even with a dysfunctional heart, an exchange of connection, appreciation, and belonging has happened via the band, and will continue to happen via this album. It’s tough to put into words how much of a full circle of expression that I recognise this album has. Holding Absence IS a Godsend, and YOU (listeners – in all senses of the word) are EVERYTHING.
A flawless collection of heart-wrenching and emotionally vulnerable snapshots of life. We're bearing witness to genuine struggle, yet also in the front row to the immense joy that the band itself has brought its members.