Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a band whose sound has changed more drastically and consistently over the years than Trophy Scars. Beginning as a post-hardcore outfit in 2002, the band has never ceased to blur genres, ever-evolving rather than dying like many of their initial contemporaries. 2009 saw the release of the fan-funded Bad Luck, Trophy Scars’ first foray into the nearly-unclassifiable gospel-psychedelia that they have since perfected over the course of two EPs, Darkness, Oh Hell (2010) and Never Born, Never Dead (2011). After an extended wait, Trophy Scars announced Holy Vacants would finally arrive in early 2014, and honestly, I was a little worried. After the masterful one-two punch of Darkness, Oh Hell and Never Born, Never Dead, how would Trophy Scars pull off a full-length? Would their bluesy meandering grow tiresome after forty minutes? Would it be too dense? Or worst of all, would I just not get it?
My fears were, as usual, unfounded. Not only do savant-like brothers Jon (guitar) and Brian Ferrara (drums) showcase the most impressive and engaging musicality of their careers, vocalist/lyricist Jerry Jones offers with Holy Vacants his best and most affective writing yet. As Jones explains in useful detail here, the record is a 12-track story focusing on a couple not unlike the “assassin lovers” of Bad Luck. This couple “has discovered the Fountain of Youth in the blood cells of angels.” Jones elaborates on the story’s origins in the “Hashilim Project,” a conspiracy referring to the belief (supposedly) held by certain Catholic priests that Hitler’s goal in exterminating the Jewish people was the elimination of the “Nephilitic gene” – a product of the union of angel and man carried by “God’s chosen people.” To kill an angel, one needs an Egyptian perfume called “Qeres,” the title of the album’s second track. In the interview, Jones continues on:
So in my story, this once-religious couple has discovered the lost recipe for qeres and plans on outing and killing angels; not as anti-Christians but because they realize that drinking pure Nephilitic blood keeps them from aging. They feel justified, as they believe their “mission” allows them to eternally love each other in physical form. They swear their love is “pure and true,” however, it is revealed instantaneously that they are corrupt and vain. They struggle with petty insecurities and an obvious insatiable lust for youth. The female character is no longer in love with the male but enamored with the Fountain of Youth. The male character realizes this but his adoration of her is too strong. They both won’t leave each other out of convenience. The male begins to feel their life together is an abomination and an affront to God. The story takes many twists and turns from there on out.
While one could easily fear such a specific and religion-heavy story would render the album unrelatable, Jones makes sure of the contrary. In essence, Holy Vacants’ motifs stem from a traditional dramatic arch – that of “doomed lovers.” Intrinsic to this trope are themes of love (“Love me impossible, stay here forever, ever and ever, happy forever”), hate (“Fuck your face, and fuck your blame, the only thing I claim is your last name”), nostalgia (“How I miss your skin, I miss your lips, your pretty hair, and your curvy hips”), youth (“I’ve never felt so young. I can hear the fires on the sun”), time (“The only thing that haunts me is your quiet sobbing and time”), loneliness (“You’re not alone, you’re just lonely sometimes”), and all that good stuff that made poets exist in the first place. In short, there’s something here for everyone.
And speaking of “for everyone,” I cannot stress enough how universally accessible this music is. Despite the band’s hardcore roots, Jones stresses, “it simply just isn’t what we are anymore…I think our sound has a broad appeal to those who like all types of music, and that certainly includes heavy music. Our music is intense and sometimes flies off the handlebars, but it’s really just the blues! Even my vocal inflections are heavily influenced by standard blues songs.” And it’s true, much of Trophy Scars’ progressions and melodies are rooted in blues scales, and combined with Jones’ trademark gruff vocals, their sound has often recently been compared to Tom Waits. While I sympathize with this comparison, it’s a little off-base when considering Waits’ dabblings in styles ranging from lounge music to circus tunes. No, Trophy Scars is first and foremost a rock band. With their utilization of piano and organ (Gray Reinhard), string arrangements (David Rimelis), horns (Taylor Mandel & Caleb Rumley), and a three-piece female gospel choir (Desiree Saetia, Kate Lewis, & Heidi Bovine Sigler), the band is able to seamlessly interweave genres ranging from gospel to burlesque to hard rock. And if the gravelly timbre of Jones’ voice bothers you, I truly and shamelessly pity you, because you’re closing yourself to an entire world of emotions untapped by the “clean” and “pretty” voice.
Jones admits this record is his “final tribute” to his “muse and ex-girlfriend, Lauren,” whose name only appears on one occasion during the album’s emotionally crushing closer. It’s a lesson in letting go, in acceptance. Jones explains the record’s pupose as such: “We want people to feel loss in a whole new way. It’s kind of an oxymoron to say the listener will be gaining loss, but that’s what the record is set out to do.” It’s important to note that there is not one moment of bliss set in the story’s present. Not until the penultimate track “Every City, Vacant” does the narrator reflect on the couples’ golden days (“How it used to feel in our younger bodies, in our fancy cars, marbled hotel lobbies. On a foreign beach on our wedding day, in satin sheets in our king-sized bed…”). From the outset of the record’s moody introduction track “Extant,” it’s clear the couple is unraveling (“‘So what you wanna do, babe?’ You roll your eyes and say, ‘Not tonight.’“), and yet, the narrator still waxes nostalgic in its final lines (“And I think of your face years ago on Easter Day…how you looked at my face when we went dancing in the pouring rain”), unable to let his cold, unresponsive lover go. “Qeres” serves as the story’s backbone, cleverly introducing plot details (“Killing angels right, one by one, eating marrow and drinking blood, and though it seems like so much fun, my mouth is itchy from their holy tongues”), recurring lyrics and melodies (“We’re free from the devil and free from your God, but we’re stuck here in limbo, forever forgot”), and the sting of regret that stains the entire record (“’Cause there are things you said and awful things I said that I can’t forget…”). The track is a seven-minute rollercoaster ride, flowing back and forth between quiet and booming and rife with some of the best guitar-work you’ll hear all year. Next up, “Archangel” is a horn-heavy ballroom romper fit for a dance partner throughout which our male protagonist grieves for his dying relationship (“And I felt like dyin’, girl, but it doesn’t change a thing – I’ll always mean less to you than what you mean to me”). The song ends with a painful, desperate admission, showing his unshakable devotion to his callous beloved (“The only thing I wanted was for you to be happy, youthful and pretty, not shattered and lonely…”). The band recently released a video for the song, which you can find here.
Following “Archangel” is “Crystallophobia” (fear of glass – in this case, mirrors, and thus, old age), the first of three phobia-titled songs that segment Holy Vacants. “Crystallophobia” is similar in sound to “Archangel,” but much direr in tone. The song moves along with its arguing characters, varying from calm to explosive. The male pleads, “I’ve loved you since you were a child, before we both grew our dirty mouths,” only to receive a response of “So what?” catalyzing the violent events that transpire in the driving and downright sinister “Burning Mirrors.” It’s during this song that the “twists and turns” Jones spoke of start to rear their ugly heads. It becomes evident that our male protagonist has decided that neither he nor his lover deserves such eternal life: “I pull the car off the road, I pull you out the window, I drag you through the rugged stones, I hear the cruel snaps in your bones. I ask if you ever loved me, and all you say is ‘Please.’ It’s not what I want, it’s not what you’ll get, I cry while you beg on your knees.” The events of the following song are prefaced as well – “Baby, I thought this was it. I thought we’d be better than this. I thought about moonlighting gangsters, some Bonnie & Clyde type of shit. Awful antics aside, I’m choosing a suicide.” The blues-drenched “Hagiophobia” (fear of the holy – i.e. saints, relics, etc.) details his suicide after he finds a suitable vacant house to “lay our shattered bones. Something familiar, something abandoned, somewhere where the vultures can pick apart our damage.”
After “Hagiophobia” is when things start to get really interesting with “Chicago Typewriter” beginning my favorite segment of Holy Vacants – that of the incorporeal. Our “doomed lovers” awake as specters, trapped in the house their bodies lie in. “Typewriter” explores their new existence with brilliant guest vocal and lyrics from oddball Adam Fisher (ex-Fear Before, All Human), including, “So now punished, I shall punish whoever inhabits this house, now a canvas, a puppet with my hand in it” and “Now enter the priest! He shrieks Latin, sprays water. I stick to the walls. In this house I am God.” The song is plodding, creepy, unsettling, even, thanks to Fisher’s eerie contributions. It’s a truly fun listening experience that’ll have you chanting along “In every home a ghost exists” before its end. The haunting continues into “Gutted,” a piano-heavy theatrical piece topped off by Desiree Saetia’s incredible backup vocals that’ll make you think you stumbled into a Louisiana church. The song chronicles the couple scaring a family of eight out from under their roof – “As they run out the door, we appear through the floor, ghosts forevermore, scratching burning crosses on our heads.” The blasphemy is tongue-in-cheek and frankly, a blast.
The final segment of Holy Vacants is the catchy, rollicking “Every City, Vacant,” an indie track drenched in nostalgia and dripping with some of my favorite lyrics the record has to offer (“Drinking wine with our best friends on the Big Sur cliffs laughing in the wind, swimming pools in the Hollywood hills, painting moments from your favorite films…”). Up next is the emotional closer “Everything Disappearing,” a dynamic, somber heartbreaker with its chorus of “I don’t live here no more, she don’t live here no more, we don’t live here no more” and the climactic repetition of “Lauren, please don’t watch me as I walk out that door and explode into nothing” as our protagonist turns his ghostly back on his former love, choosing to leave their prison and dissipate into nothingness.
Whether or not the concept compels you, it cannot be denied that Trophy Scars succeeded (and then some) in crafting an incredibly unique record with Holy Vacants. No one is making music like this. Bar none. And that should be celebrated. Honestly, it’s one of those records that leave me completely unable to comprehend how it could have been written. Unfortunately, Trophy Scars is still a relatively unknown name, even amidst smaller circles. I implore you to give this record a shot, if by watching the video for “Archangel” above, or even just Youtubing which song sounds most appealing to you. Due to the extraordinary inimitability of Holy Vacants, I give it the highest score you may see from me in a while.