Far from being just another band with a sweary name, Holy Fuck were founded on an enticing principle – to make electronic music without the use of modern digital electronic methods (programming, sampling, laptops etc), core members Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh instead utilising various mini keyboards, effects pedals and even film reel and toys (a Speak & Spell being a particular favourite) to create a cacophony of sound, all accompanied by bass and drums. While they’ve always been a must-see live act, even earning the praise of a certain Lou Reed, their ability to progress over their first three albums without straying far from those methods has been a joy to behold, from the improvisational jams of their 2005 self titled debut, to the more refined songcraft of 2007 breakthrough LP, to the consistent thrills of Latin, easily one of the finest albums of 2010. But since then all has been quiet, band members busying themselves with other bands (or in Walsh’s case, engineering work for fellow Canadians like METZ and Alvvays). Although they finally returned to live performance a couple of years ago with new songs in tow, only now are we getting our long awaited follow up, Congrats.
With first single ‘Tom Tom’ comes the slightly unexpected use of vocals – though vocals have played a part in their sonic arsenal for some time, it’s more often in the form of echoed shouts or wordless wails, only rarely forming a track’s central hook or using actual lyrics. Not that it deviates too far from their usual sound – those vocals may be higher in the mix but are still coated in effects, and they spool away at the end of each line like a tape being eaten – but as it turns out vocals are a common theme across Congrats, likely informed by Borcherdt’s solo career and interim work with Dusted, even becoming briefly understandable on ‘Xed Eyes’ (“Test the dull edge of the knife/Carve an X into your eyes”), a song that reminds us how invaluable bassist Matt McQuaid and drummer Matt Schulz have become to the band since the rhythm section revolving door ceased turning. Latin’s winning formula of building repeated riffs into towering climaxes is played down here (‘Shivering’ being one of the exceptions, and the reprisal of its main riff on an acoustic guitar later on the album ties things together nicely), Congrats having more in common with the more rollicking nature of LP, particularly that album’s vocal-inflected highlight ‘Royal Gregory’, a direction that always deserved to be explored further.
It’s not a backward looking album though, and continues to carry their sound gradually forward. There are echoes of Glasgow’s Errors (who have started using vocals in a similar manner on their most recent albums), never more apparent than on the shimmering keys and gorgeous vocal and guitar melody of ‘Neon Dad’, as well as ‘Shivering’s reverb-heavy female voice, but unlike Errors’ recent material they resist any temptation to turn retro. One less fortunate quality this album shares with LP though is that it lacks the consistency of Latin, and while no tracks are weak, those that kick off the second half meander pleasantly but lack the vitality of the album’s highlights, until the sugar rush of ‘Acidic’ turns things back around near the finish line. But despite uneven moments, when Congrats is at its best it’s very, very good indeed, and seems to send bursts of vivid colour forth from one’s speakers. It may be a quite literally self congratulatory album title, but they’ve earned it. We can forgive the wait. Cathal McBride