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s/t Bernie Brooks , February 28th, 2022 11:04

Holodrum's debut LP is a vehicle of abandon and sincerity that manages to capture the gut-punch feeling of the live experience, says Bernie Brooks

Before we get into it, a note in praise of the Clavinet, Ernst Zacharias's masterpiece for Hohner. And honestly, when I say it’s his masterpiece, that’s saying something. See, Zacharias spent the sweet spot of his career designing electro-mechanical instruments for the Trossingen, Germany, manufacturer best known to most for its harmonicas. Anyway, before his death in 2020, our boy clocked nearly 100 patents, including the Pianet electric piano and a very early wind synth, but among them all, the Clav reigns supreme. You might say to me, “Wait wait wait, what about the Pianet? The Zombies? The Beatles? Hello?!?” To which I’d reply, “Stevie.”

Should you need any further evidence for the Clavinet as Zacharias’s top-tier dispenser of aural candy, look no further than ‘Superstition’, one of the greatest singles ever. The Clav, an electrically amped up clavichord manufactured in various iterations from 1964 to 1982, added spice to cross-genre hits from the era, but its chunky sound fully lent itself to funky tunes. Folks like Wonder and Herbie Hancock absolutely owned it.

A machine of joy, The Clavinet has become emblematic of a very specific time and vibe – all mirrored glass and sweaty dancers in silk and sequins – perhaps to its detriment. Following the 80s, the Clav and its clones and emulators have only sporadically resurfaced in popular culture. Though there must be more recent instances, the last I can think of is LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Yeah (Pretentious Mix)’ back in 2004. But there, the Clav’s inclusion felt ironic, tongue in cheek, like a punchline. Imagine my surprise when it popped up in Holodrum’s thrilling 2020 single ‘Lemon Chic’ without any trace of irony or pretense. Practically did my head in.

‘Lemon Chic’, Holodrum’s third single, opens the septet’s self-titled debut LP, and if you’re anything like me, it's long awaited. Prior to ‘Lemon Chic’, the group dropped two singles in quick succession in the fall of 2019, ‘No Dither’ then ‘Low Light’. ‘No Dither’ marked the first time former Hookworms members Matthew Benn (on bass, synths, and production), Jonathan Nash (on drums), Sam Shjipstone (on guitar and vocals), and Jonathan Wilkinson (on guitar) appeared together on record since that band’s sudden-but-principled disintegration on Halloween 2018. If you squint, you can make out a few throughlines between a track or two on Hookworms final LP, Microshift, and the rock-inflected disco of Holodrum, but only just. And besides, I don’t want to make too much of the Hookworms connection. There are three other people in the band – Christopher Duffin (on sax and synths), Emily Garner (on vocals), and Steve Nuttall (on percussion) – and ultimately, Hookworms is only one of a wide array of often-interconnected groups Holodrum's members have contributed to. Among them: Beautiful Lunches, Cowtown, Drahla, Nope, Virginia Wing, XAM Duo, and Island sprechgesangers Yard Act.

That all three of the above singles are included on Holodrum’s debut LP, and indeed make up half of it, is not, I don’t think, indicative of any sort of lack on the band’s part. Instead, I suspect what we’re seeing here is something we’ll be seeing a lot of: a band kneecapped by COVID-19, hamstrung by vinyl delays and the general shit of the world, and essentially forced into a holding pattern for two plus years. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve only played out a couple of times, and recently cancelled a pair of post-lockdown gigs due to Omicron.

Besides, these tracks are all killer, deserving of a “proper” release on physical media, if you still care about that sort of thing. ‘Lemon Chic’ sets the tone and template for the record: a long synthy fade-in punctuated by a metronomic snare and claps that bursts into hooky sax, meaty rhythmic interplay complete with a dancefloor-ready dual-percussive assault, interstellar guitar work, and Garner in full diva mode. Plus! The Clav, in the spotlight, centre stage during a mid-track breakdown. This is an all-caps D-I-S-C-O party with zero postmodern remove.

‘No Dither’ follows, foot-to-the-floor, pedal-to-the-metal, carried by rubbery, driving bass and stabbing, slashing guitar, with Shjipstone chiming in on vox sorta like Holodrum’s own Fred Schneider to Garner’s Cindy Wilson. Theirs is a less campy, less kitschy affair, but still. ‘Low Light’, for its part, is a soaring, romantic number – the kind of track that feels alive and makes you feel alive, too. It’s the album’s penultimate track, anchoring side B, all fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

‘Free Advice'’ the first “new” track on the record, is a snappy jammer focused on the interplay between sparkling synths and groovy Clavinet, and rounded out by a sassy back and forth between Shjipstone and Garner – the latter doing her best Tom Tom Club throughout. Closer ‘Clean’ ends the festivities on an ecstatic note, cycling periodically though build-ups of tension and wild release before gradually winding things down. Of all the tracks here, it most calls to mind DFA’s golden years, particularly The Juan Maclean. Although, on some level, comparisons such as this might be doing Holodrum a disservice by suggesting the emulation of emulators, when it seems just as likely a case of shared influences affecting the output of both groups. But who’s to say? It's not as if The Juan Maclean haven’t amassed an excellent body of work of their own, one worthy of drawing inspiration from.

‘Stage Echo’, recalling album opener ‘Lemon Chic’, eases the listener into the second side of the record with another long fade-in. A bit of synth, some watery pads, and snaps patiently build to an eruption of sound as the drums come in hard, with Garner, just shy of imperious, above it all. Holodrum have a huge sound, and Benn’s dynamic mix, along with Bob Weston on the master, emphasizes this wonderfully. It’s incredible how explosive this record can sound, the way it bursts from your speakers when the whole band comes in, almost mimicking the live experience. You can practically feel – in your gut and in your chest – what it would be like to catch a Holodrum performance in some club somewhere. And as someone who hasn’t been to a gig since before the pandemic, that’s a very welcome feeling.

Throughout its thirty-odd minute runtime, Holodrum’s debut LP overwhelms with delight. But there’s more to it than just that. Besides being a hell of a lot of fun, this record is a vehicle of sincerity and abandon – and genuine appreciation. This is a group that doesn’t keep anything at arm’s length. If it’s in their sound, they embrace it, redirecting that enthusiasm toward the listener. To once again lift and mangle a phrase from Bradbury by way of Sea Power: like Ernst Zacharias’s enduring gift to the world, Holodrum are a machine of joy.