Holy Popes – Debut album: Album Review

Gritty, hardcore messaging from Bristol post-garage punks, the Holy Popes.

Release Date:  27th January 2023

Label: Man Demolish Records

Formats: Download, Streaming

Featuring former members of bands such as The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and Three Kings High, Bristol-based post-garage/punk trio Holy Popes got together just before lockdown imposed its iron grip on all things music.  The band – Dom Knight on guitar and vocals, Luke Bujniewicz on drums and Jake Beckett on bass – managed to squeeze in one gig before the shutters came down but, instead of idling around waiting for something to change, the guys spent their two years of on/off imposed confinement creating and honing the songs for this, their debut, self-titled album.

Recorded ‘live’ in the studio, Holy Popes is a solid wall of cacophonous, distortion-laden hardcore punk, packed with gritty messages and acerbic swipes at capitalism, convention and commerce.  The messages occasionally get lost in the drama – and that’s probably deliberate, but – make no mistake – they’re delivered with passion, presence and unlimited musically.  They mean it, man.

There’s a surprising variety to the album’s choice of material, with metal, grunge and psychedelia all getting a look-in alongside the lightning-paced punk that is the album’s default bill-of-fare, and I even detected influences reaching back as far as Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica in amongst the stuttering anguish.  Holy Popes are as tight as glutton’s corset; Luke’s drumming is crisp and solid and Dom’s guitar is alternately riffy and exploratory, but I’m particularly impressed by Jake’s bass playing which, as well as providing the rocky, rhythmic foundation that these songs require, also finds the time and space to step into the spotlight and lead the charge.

The album opens with Prelude, a short burst of psychedelic flute and tinny percussion that offers clues with regard to the sonic onslaught that’s to come but, from that point onward, it’s a matter of “engage yer brain and brace yerself.”

There’s no time to breathe here…  The apocalyptic, punchy Séance, with its twangy bass, crashing drums and anguished vocals sets the scene for what’s in store and, to be quite honest, the pace hardly lets up from there on in. 

Pencils, the excellent current single is drenched in feedback, laced with maniac soloing and topped off by Dom’s pained vocals.  The song examines the complexities of the male experience within relationships, and how patriarchal masculinity won’t allow men to express multi-faceted layers of emotion.  Dom explains further: “This repression often leads to toxic behaviours in relationships and can easily progress into emotional or physical abuse.  By rejecting patriarchal masculinity, we can not only help to end misogyny and sexism, but also provide kindness and compassion to ourselves and the men around us.”

Probably the most full-bore punk song on the album, Medic is an all-out sensual assault that pulls no punches whatsoever, as the “It’s so f*cking simple, you piece of sh*t” refrain testifies, more than adequately.  It’s the combination of tightly-arranged instrumentation and go-anywhere vocal delivery on Better 4U that puts me in mind of Trout Mask Replica and Jake’s bass playing is, perhaps, at its best on Skin of an Ape, as he supplements the song’s driving riff with some wonderfully accomplished fills, without compromising one iota of the immediacy of the song.

The choice of DBT as the album’s lead single was a wise one.  Angry and immediate, it’s certainly one of the album’s outstanding tracks and Jake’s bass once again takes the lead with the chugging riff that drives the song and provides the perfect foundation for Dom’s supplementary guitar and his barked-out vocals.  The song is Dom’s angry, bitter and frustrated swipe at the capitalist system – a system that he describes as “organized crime.”  “Promoting ideas of climbing the social ladder through objects and wealth means people can no longer wait for their next car or phone.  They have to borrow, to obtain it today,” he explains, “This capitalist trick has us blame each other for our ills and distracts us from the billions that are accrued by the very few, leaving behind them a trail of poor bodies, environmental destruction and social instability.”

Under normal circumstances, I’d perhaps question the relevance of Interlude, a one-minute assault of random noise.  But these are not normal circumstances and, in the context of Holy Popes, Interlude fits comfortably into the album’s sequence.  Dom and Jake both excel on the grungy Split Up, with Jake laying yet another solid foundation for a wonderfully distorted guitar solo from Dom, before the album takes a serious turn for the pair of lengthy tracks that bring it to its close.

The urgency of Dom’s slurred refrain – “My friend Jerry is an artist man, with a big old heart but not much upstairs” – builds and builds before penultimate track, Jerry, crashes and burns in an unexpected soft, gentle playout and closing track, Slither, takes us through a spectrum of emotion as it thunders towards Dom’s wonderfully psychedelic guitar solo, before morphing into something that is almost anthemic.

Holy Popes are a name to watch, and their debut album is quite something.  It’s not an album that will appeal to the faint of heart, and the uninitiated may well be alarmed by the punishing pace and presence, but those who persevere will be rewarded.  Oh yes.

Watch the official video to Pencils – the current single from the album – here:

Holy Popes online: Facebook / Instagram

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