There's a lot to be said about relentlessly ploughing the same furrow: just ask Lungfish, for example, who famously played 'one incredible song' for 16 years and 11 albums without ravaging the fertile turf of droning post hardcore they exhibited. And indeed, 10,000 Fall fans can't be wrong, if the band's sprawling 30+ year discography still continues to expand as quickly as Mark E Smith can find new band members to fire.
Francis Harold & The Holograms look set to be another band capably holding a steady course for years to come. Though whether or not they play one incredible song is certainly up for debate: it sounds more like the fragments of what used to be a song, shredded and shattered after being subjected to industrial torture. Over the course of the nine tracks that make up Who Said These Were Happy Times, Francis howls and screams, his occasionally blood curdling vocals usually drowned out by his Holograms tearing it up behind him like Flipper at their most stomach churningly intense.
It's not an especially novel formula, given that Pissed Jeans, TV Ghost and the thrillingly bone-rattling Mayyors have kicked up similar kinds of rackets over the past few years, trawling the AmRep back catalogue and the output of legendary arch-wreckers Drunks With Guns to garner inspiration for their own takes on Black Flag's My War or the afore mentioned Flipper's Generic Flipper. But novelty is overrated when it comes to noise rock: what matters is intensity, a healthy dose of insanity and some filthy sounding sludge, played at breakneck speed and crushing volume. And in this sense, Francis and his comrades from nowheresville (Bisbee, Arizona) are certainly well equipped to supply the kind of rock and roll devolution and sonic depravity so prized amongst those of a certain disposition. Who Said These Were Happy Times is a crushingly heavy album. It's almost so heavy as to be indigestible, tracks meandering haphazardly into each other in a patchwork of crippled guitar solos, mineshaft screams, jackhammer bass riffs and thundering percussion. But that's the ugly beauty of it: unlike say, Pissed Jeans, there's not the slightest nod to melody or lyricism. This is noise rock for aficionados, a take no prisoners approach to sonic brutality that only vaguely contains 'songs', lacking even the breakneck pace and juggernaut riffs that the scene's current loudest and fastest, Mayyors, utilise to such riveting effect. It seems that Francis Harold & The Holograms got round a table, worked out one killer, juddering riff and then stretched it, chopped it and screwed it into nine slightly different but ultimately similar guitar hooks during the recording process.
Thus, opener 'Intro-Nightmare' finds Francis whispering "Welcome toooo....the nightmare..." before some mutant variant of a Flipper riff kicks in, drowning out whatever lyrics there may be with screeching feedback, the guitar occasionally losing itself only to remember what it was supposed to be playing halfway through whatever counts as a phrase. The overall effect is disarming: it's like listening to a band playing in a wind tunnel at full blast, equipment and band members alike occasionally thudding against the walls. 'Chain 10' is a more lumbering affair, a ponderous bassline anchoring a lyrical performance which seems to constitute Francis howling the song's title over and over, before retreating to the back and murmuring something inaudible, then letting off a scream. 'Did You Hear' is even more terrifyingly despondent, an out of tune Sabbath riff extending bloatedly for 10 minutes, Francis becoming Dr Harold, laughing, cackling and sighing the song's entire course. By the time 'Retreat Ending' stutters into life with a guitar lead being jammed messily into an amp and dies after six minutes of what seems like unsustainable pace, the listener feels almost as bludgeoned as the unnamed and hooded Hologram's thoroughly abused bass strings.
Yet, the monotonous dirge-like nature of Who Said These Were Happy Times is the record's greatest asset. Whilst you have to be a certain type of glutton to appreciate this kind of punishment, delivered without the seasoning or diversity offered by Francis Harold & The Holograms contemporaries, those with an ear for the extreme will find plenty to love on Who Said These Were Happy Times: whether it's the exhumed garage rock of the ominously named 'Black Boots, Red Shirt, Little Boys' or the stuttering intro to 'I See It All'. But most of all what they'll love is the sheer hellish intensity conjured up by Francis Harold and his anonymous Holograms, the fact that once Who Said These Were Happy Times gets started, it's nigh on impossible to stop. The day Francis Harold & The Holograms stop making records like this highly impressive debut is the day they decide to play a second riff. Based on the evidence displayed here, they shouldn't be in any rush to come to that decision.
8Philip Bloomfield's Score