The Holy Sea
Ghosts Of The Horizon
Australian history the primary focus of The Holy Sea’s third album 'Ghosts Of The Horizon', writes RENÉ SCHAEFER.
During Midnight Oil’s 2006 ARIA award acceptance speech, Rob Hirst lamented what he perceived as a dearth of political protest songs in contemporary Australian rock music. Like many old-school left wingers, postmodernism’s realisation that all art is political by nature, whether it deals with the subject explicitly or through its context, had somehow passed him by.
Indeed, some of the most strongly political music is neither infused with ideology, nor didactic in its expression. Hence, a piece of improvised free noise can be as powerfully consciousness-awakening as the rousing call to arms of a Woody Guthrie song. But this is old news – a given in today’s culture of multiple viewpoints and free-flowing interpretations. Still, culture wars rage in Australia as much as anywhere else. Even to begin dealing with Australia’s ongoing debate over its fraught colonial history through the medium of art, is to leave oneself open to all sorts of accusations of bias, hidden agendas or grandstanding.
In this environment, it’s courageous for songwriter Henry F. Skerritt to make Australian history the primary focus of The Holy Sea’s third album Ghosts Of The Horizon. This is a collection of songs that are both dark and expansive as pieces of music, falling broadly into the genre of “Australian Gothic”, explored by the likes of The Triffids, The Drones, The Bad Seeds, Crow and The Blackeyed Susans. That said, The Holy Sea have a musical identity entirely their own, just as the aforementioned bands encompass many diverse musical personalities. The Holy Sea might share The Triffids’ birthplace of Perth and a predilection for epic structures, and they augment their guitar-based songs with keyboards, strings and multiple vocalists, but they are distinguished by the complex and affecting lyrics of Skerritt.
On Ghosts Of The Horizon, Skerritt draws on situations and characters from our nation’s past and present, both well-documented and from his own imagination. Thus George Arthur, governor of the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, rubs shoulders with Senior Seargent Chris Hurley, acquitted of the death in police custody of Palm Islander Mulrunji Doomadgee. Skerritt presents these tales as first-person narratives, but his language is always poetic rather than accusatory.
“On ‘Ghosts Of The Horizon’, Skerritt draws on situations and characters from our nation’s past and present, both well-documented and from his own imagination.”
Real people are brought to life through writing that’s terse and shot through with romantic imagery. ‘The Ten Rules’ is a great example of this. Sung from the perspective of Tom W. Wills, the sportsman credited with codifying Australian Rules Football, it deals with his decline into alcoholism, leading up to suicide with a pair of scissors at the age of 44. As he looks back over his life, the inequality and prejudices he observed in society, both in his native Australia and during his schooling in England, seem to him cancelled out by the egalitarian nature of football.
It’s an interesting subject for a song, but it gains immeasurably from the way its verses unfold the story. As the music builds in intensity, the song’s centre consists of a long list of oppositions: “There’s one rule for captive and one rule for free. There’s one rule for you and one rule for me. There’s one rule for truth and one rule for lies. There’s one rule to live and there’s one rule to die.” It is only on the neutral sports field that people are seen as equal.
‘Arthur’s Lament’ finds the autocratic governor in a brooding mood as, in a contemplative moment, he addresses himself to the ghosts of Tasmania’s Aboriginal population, eradicated from the island at his behest:
But brother, oh brother, are we both not men,
equal under God in heaven and the protection of the King?
But there’s no sacrament in this dark continent
to turn your blood back into wine.
But I’ll watch you rise.
Like John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s movie The Proposition, Skerritt explores history through the eyes of the conquerors, exposing the false victory of both its ruling class and freed convicts over a savage and inhospitable land. Even a song like ‘Bad Luck’, which deals with present-day characters lost in a sun-scorched urban environment, reinforces the point that nobody is free, and that modern Australians continue to remain at odds with the former penal colony they call home. Even Skerritt’s closing trilogy of songs, which deals with romantic themes, remains bleak in its outlook, suggesting that even when the land has been subjugated, there remains little do but drink, fight and fuck. There is a lost-ness at the heart of these domestic dramas, as melancholic as the sorrow of Skerritt’s historical tales.
This darkness is reflected in the music, with its haunting echoes of folk songs and sea shanties, and the broad cinematic sweep which has become synonymous with representations of the desolate Australian landscape. There is a restraint and tension in the arrangements, avoiding excess in order to make their presence more powerfully felt at crucial moments. At the heart of it all is Victor Utting’s expressive electric guitar playing, which can be both lyrical and nasty in turns. Keyboardist Daniel Hoey and cellist Gareth Skinner know how to milk every last ounce of pathos from their instruments, and when vocalist Emma Frichot takes the lead on ‘The Seafarer’, the ambitious nature of this album is completed.
If the point of art is to hold up a mirror to society, the reflection we see in the music of The Holy Sea is one of violence and ugliness, tempered by a mournful resignation at the fact that Australia never experienced an age of innocence. Still, there is no shame-faced self-admonishment here, as there is in the songs of Midnight Oil. It is this, which makes their poetry all the more potent.
Unlike The Oils, Skerritt isn’t interested in pointing the finger or making value judgments. He realises that our colonial history has always been predicated by a lack of choices, its protagonists’ actions determined by chains both physical and psychological. Force and compulsion loom large in the collective unconscious of Anglo-Australian culture. Whether as victims or perpetrators, the mental imprint of violence and oppression remains.
Skerritt considers the present as part of a larger continuum of Australia’s colonial history, in which savagery has not yet been vanquished and is the ubiquitous background to contemporary experience. In the end, Skerritt makes the point that we are not yet a free and modern people, but remain divorced from our history, conflicted and uncertain, precariously clinging to a continent that remains as alien to us as it was when Europeans first landed on these shores.