One of my favorite music finds of 2022 has been Welsh alternative psychedelic rock collective Holy Coves, who I discovered this past February as a guest moderator for Fresh On The Net, an independent music blog launched in 2009 by renowned BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson. As a guest moderator, my task was to listen to all 170 songs submitted that particular week, and choose my top five favorites of the bunch, along with any others I particularly liked. One of my five picks was the Holy Coves single “The Hurt Within”. The darkly beautiful song made me an instant fan of theirs, and I liked it so much that it spent 11 weeks on my Top 30 chart.
They quickly followed “The Hurt Within” with their brooding stomper “Desert Storm” in late April (which I reviewed), then “Grey” in June, another gorgeous single that recently finished a 10-week run on my Top 30 chart. Now they’re back with their long-awaited third album Druids and Bards, released on October 14th by Yr Wyddfa Records. The album features nine tracks, including the three above-named songs.
I provided quite a bit of background on Holy Coves in my “Desert Storm” review, but will reiterate a few important details about them here. The brain child of singer-songwriter Scott Marsden, a long-time and respected figure in the Welsh music scene, Holy Coves is based in Holy Island, which is itself situated just off Anglesey Island in northwest Wales. Since forming in 2005, the band has consisted of an ever-changing roster of musicians, as Marsden brings in who he wants to work with for each project. Holy Coves released their debut album The Lizzies Ynys Môn in early 2008, then followed in 2011 with an EP and two singles, which were later included on their second album Peruvian Mistake, released in 2012.
After a nearly 10-year hiatus, brought on in part by the death of his best friend and manager, as well as his personal struggles with addiction and subsequent recovery, Marsden assembled a new group of esteemed musicians – John Lawrence on guitar, Owain Ginsberg on guitar & synths, Jason Hughes on bass and Spike T Smith on drums – to help with the recording of Druids and Bards. Marsden wrote and sang all songs, and co-produced the album with Lawrence, who also engineered it. Mixing and mastering was done by Austin, Texas-based music producer Erik Wofford. The two men shown flanking Marsden in the photo below are musician friends he’s brought in for live performances, who will also play on his next record.
Hallmarks of Holy Coves’ dynamic sound are their striking melodies, powerful, driving rhythms, lush, cinematic synths, exquisite layered guitars, and Marsden’s beautiful and sensuous vocals that remind me at times of U2 front man Bono. Druids and Bards features all these attributes and quite a bit more, with songs addressing such topics as love, relationships, struggles with addiction and finding happiness in this often painful and difficult world.
The rousing opening track, “Away We Go“, seems to be about addiction, both to drugs and also the need for a love that cannot last: “I’m talking to myself again. Her web is spun. She’s taking aim. I can see it coming. She wakes me from my lonely haze. Her fire is hot. I feel a crave. The endless days are coming. All I see is you and me. Come on get in, take two my friend. Sail away we go./ She’s gonna break my heart again. I’m a fool for love. What can I say.” I love the song’s rapid, galloping beat and colorful mix of strummed and grungy shredded guitars.
With its powerful stomping groove, courtesy of Hughes’ thumping bassline and Smith’s pummeling drumbeats, the previously-noted “The Hurt Within” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The layered jangly and psychedelic guitar work is superb, nicely accompanied by brooding industrial synths. The lyrics are directed at a woman who broke his heart: “Here’s another song for you to sing today. About all the pain you caused when you went away. How you made me cold and left a hole inside. I wear those scars with pride. Can’t feel the world outside. How I thought I’d healed my skin. Her love is cruel. The hurt within.”
“Grey” is another favorite, with it’s exuberant melody, swirling synths and gorgeous jangly and shimmery guitars. The lyrics speak to allowing yourself to wallow in your pain from time to time, but also being open to the healing powers of love and support from others: “Let go and feel again, cos everything is hopeless when you’re grey. Hurt will find you. Love will guide you home.”
“Small and Nothing” has a bit of an Oasis sound to my ears, and seems to be about not wanting more than you already have in life: “There’s nothing in this world that I can’t live without. There’s nothing in this world that I can’t dream about. Staying young is all I care about. Cause now, small and nothing I am.” On the other hand, the dramatic “Another Day” calls to mind some of the anthemic songs of U2. It begins slowly, but gradually builds into a cinematic masterpiece. The lyrics speak of working to overcome drug addiction as an answer to numbing life’s pain: “Ticking over day by day. Heavy medicated to heal the pain. What do you feel, what do you crave? Take it slowly, and feel again. And try to remember it’s just another day./ Leave that bottle closed, we can make it if we try.”
On the mesmerizing “Desert Storm“, Holy Coves start with another stomping groove, then layers mysterious psychedelic synths, assertive percussion and an arresting blend of droning and gently distorted guitars to create a moody soundscape with a hint of optimism. Marsden’s echoed vocals have a haunting ethereal quality as he details his struggles of keeping a troubled relationship together while suffering from drug addiction.
With its hauntingly beautiful melody, gorgeous strummed guitars and folk-rock vibe, “Welcome to the Real World” reminds me a bit of Michael Kiwanuka’s song “Hero”. The lyrics speak of the futility of tilting at windmills and beating your head against the wall: “They had you now, your time is up. Welcome to the real world. It hurts. It hurts. She had you now, your time is up. Welcome to the real world, and you’re gone. You’re gone.” And on the catchy and melodic love song “Until I Fall“, the vibrant chiming guitars are a thing of wonder!
The final track “Taste the Wine” is a monumental tour-de-force, and an aural feast for the senses, with breathtaking guitar work amidst a soaring cinematic soundscape. Despite its 7:15-minute run time, it’s so gorgeous I don’t even notice how long it is. The song is about letting go of slights and painful experiences that can keep you feeling bitter and resentful, unable to move forward and enjoy your life in the here and now: “It doesn’t hurt to try. It wasn’t worth the fight. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so be strong. Hold on til it’s over. Take it slowly, and taste the wine. Sit back, let it flow dear, open your eyes. Chances are you will lose your mind. Might as well enjoy it, it’s your time.”
Druids and Bards is a superb, flawlessly-crafted album, as close to perfect as any I’ve heard this year. Every track is outstanding, making for a joyful listening experience from start to finish. Holy Coves are back, and then some!
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