View the Mobile Version of M+N

Record Reviews

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.

+

‘Ghosts Of The Horizon’ is out now through An Ocean Awaits/Fuse Music.

  -   Published on Tuesday, October 5 2010 by René Schaefer.
Related Artists


Your Comments

FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

...and The Holy Sea launch 'Ghosts Of The Horizon' alongside The Broadside Push (who also launch an album), The Maladies (Syd) and The Orphanage at the Evelyn Hotel, Fitzroy, this Sat 09 Oct.

Should be a good one!


nicko_mcbrain  said about 4 years ago:

insightful piece, FT. Henry has been writing stuff like this for years now, (my old drummer) recorded his first stuff actually, but his writing has really come into its own in the last few years.


timmydodgers  said about 4 years ago:

did postmodernism have any realisations??? and as for some of the strongest political music not being infused by ideology, I have some Fugazi records that would be case to disagree.

But as you say, ''this is old news – a given in today’s culture of multiple viewpoints and free-flowing interpretations''... although I'd like to know what this album sounds like... the triffids? not-midnight-oil?


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

I'd like to know what this album sounds like... the triffids? not-midnight-oil?

It sounds like The Holy Sea, but why don't you listen to the two sample tracks and find out for yourself, timmy?


Pex  said about 4 years ago:

so, it doesn't sound like a third-grade Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds rip off, as they sounded like when they were based in Perth?


MapoozR.Brown  said about 4 years ago:

Gareth Skinner rocks. He can slap really well too on a bass. Zimbanana!


McCoy  said about 4 years ago:

like a third-grade Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

So, just like Grinderman?


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

So, just like Grinderman?

Well played, McCoy!


timmydodgers  said about 4 years ago:

yeah, i did listen. but i like reviews where i get someone's interpretation of the music, not just positing a load of politik-socio-context. that's cool too, but you know, how does it sound? i just like to get other peoples opinions on stuff like that, well considered ones at least. but if it sounds like grinderman then i'm fine with that, i think many bands wish they could achieve even a third-grade version of nick cave's second rate sideshow... but most never will.


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

but you know, how does it sound?

Paragraphs 3 and 9 of the the review deal with this. I'm not sure what you're after. A list of the chords played? What guitar pedals were used? More adjectives?


timmydodgers  said about 4 years ago:

do they? far be it from me to come to a site that says ''reviews'' and then expect one. here's para 3

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.

cool it sounds like other bands. great review.

no need to be so defensive, i'm just saying that when I read a music review I'd like to hear how the reviewer thinks it SOUNDS not just reference six bands and then spout off on aussie history.

did you write this or have a touched a nerve?


McCoy  said about 4 years ago:

Sheesh man... that is what every crappy street press and music magazine in the world does... and it is why popular music is dominate by such inane faff. Why do you want a review to tell you what music sounds like, when it could tell you what it means or why it is important? That is the role of criticism - and it is precisely what you get in the best music writing (I'm thinking of people like Greil Marcus here, but Rene's writing is certainly up there.) Thank goodness someone is prepared to turn a sophisticated critical eye to Australian rock.


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

I still don't know what you mean by ''sounds like'', timmydodgers. Give me some pointers here.

Sounds like a dude playing a guitar?
Sounds like the sea?
Sounds like someone getting their hand mangled in a printing press?

There are only so many ways someone can describe what music sounds like before it turns into a meaningless cliche.


noneabove  said about 4 years ago:

Sounds like someone getting their hand mangled in a printing press?

You should copyright that and lease it to people.


shaun  said about 4 years ago:

TimmyDodgers is PISSED OFF.


timmydodgers  said about 4 years ago:

not pissed off. just want more of THIS:

Scattered Order maintained only one solid member throughout its career in Mitchell Jones, and his persuasions are evidently mixed. The group’s career-arc mirrors the quirks of its contemporary demands: signing to Volition in the mid-’80s meant that Scattered Order shapeshifted into a synth pop-group, yet the bookending eras of independence (late ’70s/early ’80s with M Squared, and the late ’90s on Rather be Vinyl) marked a sound that, on the one hand was entirely new, and on the other, later on, sounded like the depressive zenith of a waning industrial music. Despite the current incarnation of Scattered Order consisting of Jones and fellow founding member Michael Tee, who originally departed the group in 1982, this record is a neat continuation of the late Scattered Order records.

Up against rock music, with its mainstay components, electronic music of this nature is indelibly and unfairly watermarked, but here it’s not the equipment wielded but the sensibilities controlling it. Recurrent trends in synth-based rock music are fickle and transient, because while a group like Total Control is purely derivative but oddly now, Scattered Order is the complete opposite. They’re following a B-grade lineage of textural, pop-culture referencing industrial pop music that will sound naff to any ears not calibrated to this very particular niche. No one releases records that sound like this at the moment because the style isn’t adequately canonised. This record is two men who enjoy this unfashionable niche, riding it for all it’s worth with no concession to modernity. It’s admirable on that level but very disappointing on another, coming as it does from a legendarily forward-thinking outfit.

Every assertive element here is strictly bound to, and therefore negated by, another: the noisier elements come from Tee’s guitar playing, which are rendered tame by the uncomplicated and immediately gratifying programmed beats beneath. Vocal samples from films and public service announcements are leached of their profundity by the stock muzak nature of their surroundings: ‘Viral Surroundings’ is one of the most aggressive songs on this record, with a prominent American film sample, but it’s a struggle to connect the dots between the music and what is being voiced. Is there any correlation? Or does it just sound good? Everything on this record seems constrained by convention, and the industrial manoeuvres seem rote and pre-destined: sounds are there because they have to be.

you know, context but related to the sound of the album not just an essay on australian post colonialism with no real commentary on the actual album.

and don't bring the whole marcus thing, invisible republic is shite, pure wank. you know it's not a crime to write about the music - and let's not get reductive, i'm not asking for guitar tab but allah invented metaphor so we could describe the indescribable, so yes, i believe you can express how a thing sounds. like above, context within a musical reference.

it's all about balance. that's all. no hard feelings right?


McCoy  said about 4 years ago:

I can't believe you think that paragraph says any more about the band than paragraph 3 of Rene's review!


timmydodgers  said about 4 years ago:

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.

references a made up genre - ''australian gothic'' and then names 5 bands they sound like. then says but they have their own sound. then says they use keyboards, strings and have a couple of singers. insight much?

is this the rene fan club or something because again i didn't hate on the review i just asked for a little more consideration on how it sounded which seems to be incredibly controversial, this whole music and sound thing. i mean it's all post-modernism right and sound is so bourgeois!

honestly, game over. see you ina nother thread this one has hit the wall.


LoadMyRig  said about 4 years ago:

i love love love this.


McCoy  said about 4 years ago:

i love love love this>

Do you mean the critical debate or the record?


You need to be logged into Mess+Noise to contribute to the Releases.
Go on and Log In or if you you're not a member, feel free to Sign Up.

Tracklisting
  • 1.   There Be Dragons Here
  • 2.   King Of Palm Island
  • 3.   The Ten Rules
  • 4.   Bad Luck
  • 5.   Arthur’s Lament
  • 6.   The Seafarer
  • 7.   This River
  • 8.   Not Here Tonight
  • 9.   Holy Holy
Related M+N Content
Today On Mess+Noise