When I think of instrumental bands, I inevitably think of Blotted Science, Pelican, Jeff Loomis, and Liquid Tension Experiment (I take that back, I don’t think of the latter at all). But, how often do you think of an instrumental band that substitutes that wishful vocalist with the swooning leads of a viola? My guess is never. You never think of that. Well, the masterminds behind Sans Soleil thought about it for you. Incorporating doom, drone, post-metal, and psychedelic rhythms into their music, this quintet has put together a half-hour debut LP (that runs more like an EP), reeking of Austin hipsters nodding to the infectious plodding of a quiet band succumbing to and accepting the tight confines and isolation of a poor-lit stage.
Combined with the imagery of the album artwork, A Holy Land Beneath A Godless Sky drags you deep into the moody world shared by Nick Cave and the movie visionaries that use Cave’s music for their soundtracks. Desperate and entrancing, three of the four tracks follow the same slow-treading, doomy/gloomy intros that build in tempo and groove at their midpoint; much like an action hero rising in slow motion from that near-fatal punch before beating the snot out of his antagonist. While they don’t share their sound with Pelican, this slow build to a punchy climax is very similar to Pelican’s post-rock/post-metal style. At times AHLBAGS can be fairly lengthy, and somewhat predictable, but these tracks maintain their atmosphere as they transition seamlessly from one style to another.
“A Holy Land” and “Beneath A Godless Sky” (look at the title and you might finally start to understand what this band is all about) bookend this album with an identical passion and punch that opens and closes the album with that haunting feeling of a world come to an end. The powerful viola conveys a depression and intimacy that knows when to lead the song and when to fall into the background as the guitars surface and steal the show. While not original, Dustin Anderson and Lee Frejyalune’s guitars add just as much anguish to the droning moments of these two songs as Eva Vonne’s haunting bow. But it’s the conversion into the heavy, groovy breakdowns within the songs where the guitars crunch forth, taking the songs from doom and gloom to something… well… less doomy and gloomy. “An Umbrail Plan” is the best example of these elements.
However, “Across Brilliant Sands” breaks the mold and creates a perfect mixture of emotion and heaviness. While it still retains the same growing anxiety of the other tracks, it just does it better. It stands out above the other ditties for its passion and mood as it crescendos and collapses into the rubble of a world come to an end.
Production-wise, the album flows really well and the mix of the instruments is pleasant. The heaviness of the doomier sections is greatly impacted by the high mix/musicianship of bassist Theron Rhoten as he careens through the murky background or comes forward with a devastatingly heavy emphasis that really drives home the doomy message. The other thing AHLBAGS has going for it is that these four tracks only cover 30 minutes. This saves the album from slipping into boredom and makes the formula from song-to-song less noticeable (I’m a horribly judgmental son of a bitch that has listened to this album way too much, constantly looking for problems therein).
This is definitely not for everyone but the musicianship is good, the doom/drone is there, the builds are decent and memorable, and those haunting viola leads act more like a vocalist than just another instrument. “Metal” is a stretch but if you want something to chill out with on these cold Christmassy nights (or if you’re a parent, something perfect for the nightmare you’re about to wake up to on Christmas morning), then pop this in and watch the snowfall (or all that blowing dust).