Emil Amos has been hiding in plain sight for almost two decades now. He’s created over a dozen albums under the name Holy Sons (also as a member of Om, Lilacs and Champagne and Grails), as well as a heavy hand in an impressive run of ground-breaking experimental albums over the last ten years. Like other master shape-shifters (think Brian Eno, Jim O’Rourke or even Paul McCartney) it becomes difficult to pin him down with such an overabundance of material. This is not to say Amos doesn’t have an extremely loyal fanbase (he does!) but rather to be a fan of Amos and Holy Sons means that you are willing to follow the madman where he leads. You’re comfortable with being picked up at an improbable musical intersection and taken somewhere completely unexpected.
To fully appreciate Holy Sons forthcoming album on Partisan Records, In The Garden, it’s essential to understand Amos, first, as a songwriter. At its core, Holy Sons is a deep exploration of melody. Amos explains, “…the more focused into melody’s fundamental purpose you are, the more you can directly harness the overall power of song-craft.” In Holy Sons this means every lyrical hook, each guitar line and piano run stacks, builds and layers almost to the point of complete collapse. Traditional structures like chorus, verse and bridge are rendered obsolete as songs are simply songs by whatever means necessary — direct and emotional brain dumps from Amos to the listener — he takes songs where he wants, whenever he wants to.
Album opener “Robbed” and “Gifted” expands from a wandering solo acoustic guitar to a fully realized exploded mantra within moments of its brooding start. “Eyes Can See Clearly” is a piano-led ballad that walks the thin line between gorgeous Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys and doom-n-gloom, late-period Pink Floyd. It’s the cover of Del Shannon’s lost nugget “It’s My Feeling,: however, that adds revealing context to the album. The directness and despair of Amos’ delivery of the lyrics, “You will tell me all your pain, and I will listen and explain…” is bleak, beautiful and disarming. When he croons, “It’s my feeling. It’s my feeling”, he twists a sixties love song into a gut-wrenching existential plea. Lyrically, the songs all work off this model. Brutal truth paired with stunning arrangements.
While Amos digs deep into the 60s and 70s songwriter era for the missing blueprint, In The Garden is an undoubtedly contemporary album. While other musicians look back to ape entire songs or sounds as a template, Amos manages to adopt the authentic mindset of a 60s era artist. He manages to channel the creativity, freedom and isolation of a former time, while still sounding fresh and modern. Working closely with veteran producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile, Phosphorescent, Sonic Youth). Amos explains their process:
“In The Garden is essentially John Agnello and I out at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey carving out the sound of a classic 70’s record if it had been made by a band with all its players being very focused in the hey-day of their career… but we ‘faked’ that vibe using one player. That’s basically what I learned 4-tracking in the 90’s… how to replicate live-sounding recordings where a band is reacting and playing off of each other in real-time.”
Held up to the light, In The Garden is Holy Sons in its most potent, crystalline form. The songs that make up the album are Amos’ most focused, most detailed and most carefully emotional. It’s an efficient and powerful batch of songs that captures peak-era Holy Sons in an ideal studio setting with the perfect producer (in Agnello) steering the ship toward a purity of sound and vision that has eluded Amos in the past.
“This album was originally aesthetically based on the joy of pulling out old 70’s American & British songwriting LPs at night while you’re pounding whiskeys by the fireplace. The way those albums look and feel like a lost pillar of classicism. The drums are so round and close they sound like you could eat them …and there’s that feeling of pure pleasure you get from hearing guitar solos that were done in one take and slightly flawed vocal harmonies recorded on the fly before Pro Tools existed. It came from a lust after that time when mixes and the relationship between all the instruments breathed beautifully at the height of analog equipment.”
In a career of over 20 years, In The Garden is Amos’ statement album thus far, his flawless song cycle. Once it sees the light of day, it seems an impossibility that Amos and Holy Sons will continue to have the luxury of hanging out on the fringe.