So many bands today seem to rely on a gimmick in order to get attention. It might be outrageous costumes, on-stage antics... or maybe it's the incorporation of some strange and obscure 18th century musical instrument; but it seems like almost everybody needs their 'hook' if they want to be noticed in today's media-saturated world.
Then, every once in a while, you run across an artist like Royal Holland. Holland cuts through the sonic clutter with a razor-sharp acoustic guitar and purely superlative songwriting.
Earlier this month, he released his 5-track EP entitled Volume One - The Maze at Northside Tavern. Described as 'dreamy, smooth synth-folk songs about love and loss,' Holland's music is transportive and multi-faceted. He can weave tunes that evoke feelings of calm reflection ("Twin Rivers") and palpable tension ("The Maze"); or he can write energetic melodies that make you want to stand up and clap along ("Devil's Night").
The successful execution of The Maze is partly the result of two key collaborations. The EP was recorded and produced by Grammy Award winner Brian Olive. Olive's production is exquisite - he truly has a master's touch when it come to recording and this allows for the right elements to shine at just the right moments. The result is a recording that is not only pristine but sublimely evocative. Holland also partnered with local artist Margaret Darling on one of the tracks ("Twin Rivers"). Darling and Holland's vocals are like peas and carrots (to steal a phrase from Forrest Gump) and it puts me in mind of the songwriting team of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.
Photography for the EP was done by Jackie Mooney and Nikki Murray who, collectively, have a great deal of experience shooting bands and musicians around town. The cover, just like Holland's music, is simultaneously in-your-face and haunting with subtle peculiarity.
I found myself particularly drawn to the second track on the EP, "Statues." Between the chord progression the heavy emotionality and Holland's sorrowful vocals, I was put in the mind-frame of early work by Rufus Wainwright.
We are like statues brought to life by the thunder,
and the scream of a mother who is down to her last dollar on this earth,
crouched over fires in which she sees that her life ain't what its worth.
If there was one aspect of Volume One - The Maze that didn't quite sit right with me, it would be the percussion in the track "Twin Rivers." While the overall vibe of the song is tranquil and slightly sentimental, the drumming feels too hyperactive for that mode.
Volume One - The Maze is one of those collections of songs that you can keep with you for a long time. There is so much depth and complexity in the songwriting that you'll find you rediscover it with each listen; yet, the music is so pleasing to the ear that it doesn't require constant, intense analysis. The EP is like a river: you can fish from it, you can float down it, or if you prefer, you can just sit and let it roll on by and enjoy its company.