[Review] Oeuvre as Palimpsest: Holy Roman’s ‘Let Manchester Shake’ — Josh Mcloughlin

Holy Roman—aka the Merseyside-born, Manchester-based musician and producer Andrew Bowers—is a sonic shapeshifter. In a career spanning nearly two decades, his output is staggering in its eclecticism. In his own words, he has ‘worked in the genres of electronica, instrumental hip-hop, dance-punk, indie rock, folktronica, house, future r’n’b, garage rock, punk rock, future bass & footwork’. His eight albums and one EP were recorded under as many pseudonyms. At first listen, the hectic, sample-heavy energy of his latest release, Let Manchester Shake (2020)—his first for 6 years—seems lightyears away from the lush, navel-gazing instrumental soundscapes of 2003’s debut release The Roar of the Guns

However, if we examine Holy Roman’s oeuvre, both in the round and at a granular level, we see a corpus governed by a palimpsestic logic. Bowers’s is an ongoing, concerted project, anchored in the basic technique of exploring ideas by rewriting over songs and themes in new ways, but retaining traces and echoes of what came before. These vestiges, distilled or distorted, become detachable gestures, mobilised and reprised in later works, taken forward and upward like a Hegelian Geist in Bowers’s ongoing musical dialectic. 

‘Piano Rest’ from The Roar of the Guns (2003), for example, opens with an unassuming car horn that later features as the harbinger of the anthem ‘Hope’, the third track from Zulus (2007). This latter record, a full-band punk project shot through with samples and sequencers, marked a radical departure from the contemplative, lo-fi hip-hop aesthetic of Bowers’s second album This Is An Relegation (2004). Yet, Zulus’s preoccupation with the grit of urban experience, a recurring leitmotif in Bowers’s oeuvre which finds its first expression in the second album’s opener ‘Orange’—a washed-out trip narrated by the automated credit balance notifications on an old Nokia 3210—is carried over, hardened, and transmuted into socio-political commentary. 

Zulus committed to record, for the first time, Bowers’s formidable songwriting and vocal delivery, with ‘Hope’, ‘Repeat On Three’, ‘I’ll Be Gone, My Love’ and ‘We Don’t Do A Thing’ establishing Bowers’s sensitivity and ear for haunting melodies and mournful vocal hooks even amid the undigested bile of the record’s anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian front-end. All these tracks would re-appear a year later on the I Will Strike A Thousand Irons EP (2008), Bowers’s homage to Dylan and a record that sublimates all the rage of Zulus into a series of wistful and rollocking folk-rock anthems.

Departing from both its predecessors, The Blood Upon The Walls, Remains Of My Rivals (2009) registers the vivid influence of the north-west clubbing scene. ‘Arrow Tore Through’, with its outrageously chunky bassline, soaring pianos, and anthemic, layered vocals, belies Bowers’s incorrigible pop sensibilities. On this record, the cutting, sampling and (re)mixing mindset of This Is An Relegation (2004), shorn of its languid and inward-looking inhibitions, is conscripted in the service of a far bolder and more expansive sound. In The Blood Upon The Walls (2009), Bowers lays bare his eclectic taste, with euphoric house (‘Arrow Tore Through’), sample-driven hip-hop (‘2 B Or Not 2 B’), moody glitch-tech (‘Tyrant’), and dubstep (‘Coming In Waves—Makes Shapes Remix’ and ‘The Corner’) all in attendance. 

Pivoting again, 2011’s Greeks! Greeks! Greeks! revisits long-time favourite ‘Repeat On Three’ and reprises Bowers’s vocal style alongside a more conventional 2-piece (guitar and drums) live band set-up. Stripping away the sequencers, this record is a love letter to the sonic DNA of Bowers’s adopted city, an album haunted by Manchester’s native ghosts, chief among them the Stone Roses and The Fall, as well as the full gamut of transatlantic late 2000s alt and indie. These influences are gnashed up and spat out in ‘You Should’ve Hid Your Cypress Hill Cassettes’ and ‘Dying on Merseyside’; meanwhile, ‘Manuel Neuer Ride Them’, gives the aggressive and stirring chords of Zulus’s ‘Fill His Pockets’ the out-and-out drum kit cacophony it always secretly deserved. 

By the time we reach Hastey (2012), Bowers drops his vocals and resurrects instead the sampling impulse of The Blood Upon The Walls (2009), giving free reign to that record’s club culture-sampling mindset but with a notably melancholic tone. Opener ‘Be Anymore’ flaunts a pulsing, sidechained synth that nods at The Street’s ‘Blinded By The Lights’. ‘Be Love’ quietly registers Four Tet, whilst ‘Really Love’ unapologetically revels in the dancefloor smash ‘Is It Really Love’.

2014’s All Of The Money In The Whole Wide World marks a more pensive application of Bowers’s consummate control over sample and sequencer. The fitful, washed-out mood of ‘Let You Go’ harks all the way back to the first two records, spliced with those by-now characteristic sliced and pitched vocal hooks, whilst ‘Accent’ draws on the euphonious keys of ‘Arrow Tore Through’ from The Blood Upon The Walls (2009). 

There are obviously elements of reinvention in Bowers’s work. But the notion of ‘reinvention’ is a simplistic term and a music criticism platitude. Rather than jettisoning everything that went before to start again ex nihilo, Bowers’s music retains its red threads, those core concerns that are twisted now this way, now that, and fed through a succession of meatgrinders—different genres, emotional registers, mental states, and stages of life—to stress test musical ideas to their very limits. 

Holy Roman’s latest album, Let Manchester Shake (2020) revivifies the spirit of this palimpsestic logic. ‘Xpress 2 Tha’ recalls the voltaic riff and furious, electric energy of ‘Radicals’ from Zulus (2007), taking that mindset and bastardising it with the cut-up vocal samples that define Hastey (2012) or ‘Chicago’ from 2014’s All Of The Money In The Whole Wide World. ‘Gone Numbers’ introduces lush percussion and the suggestion of dreaming pipes counterpoised against the snappy claps and drum & bass sensibilities that lurk in everything from The Blood Upon The Walls, Remains Of My Rivals (2009) onwards. Our Nation Destroys Its Young’ is imperial, with a brooding intro both cinematic and expansive. An anthemic chorus vocal fades in and out of the centre, a disinterred testament to the sing-along choruses of Zulus (2007) and I Will Strike A Thousand Irons EP (2008). Then a furtive offbeat kicks in, the syncopation anchoring a series of moody bells, gongs, and wood percussion—wood blocks resurrected from ‘All Of The Gold In Moss Side’—to express warmth over an impersonal, driving rhythm. 

In ‘OMFUG’, more organic drums, unapologetic synths and soaring vocal refrains play out these themes of intertextuality and eclecticism on a more thoughtful, even mournful plane. Expand the track’s initialism to ‘Other music for uplifting gormandizers’ and we are reminded of the voracious musical appetite that shaped the programming at CBGB & OMFUG, Hilly Kristal’s legendary East Village venue. This sweaty box of the highest and most depraved order hoovered up a transgeneric roll-call of iconic performers, including Blondie, Misfits, Patti Smith, The Ramones, and Talking Heads. This is the sonic mindset Bowers inherited, his background in 90s remix culture drawing on the spirit of 70s broad-church rock and alt eclecticism. 

My Girls Be Saying The Same Old Things’ slides a hypnotic house refrain into a rush of gongs and a pulsing synth, undergirded by a frantic beat. The track rises in glitchy intensity before a sombre send-off, as if taking a breather, a trip to the smoking area, perhaps, before returning to the dancefloor when next track ‘Here’s One Thing To Getcha’ drops. With its tech-house bassline yanked straight from an Ancoats warehouse party, this track pays a worthy tribute to the city that runs through Bowers’s veins, an obsession that first emerged with The Blood Upon The Walls, Remains Of My Rivals (2009).

In the relentless energy of these new tracks, it might seem like the naval-gazing, dreamy detachment of the earliest works, The Roar of the Guns (2003) and This is An Relegation (2004), has been jettisoned. But a closer listen reveals the marks of this embryonic stage, however dimly. The piano on debut single ‘All Of That Movement’ is certainly the brooding, laconic hip-hop inheritrix of ‘Arrow Tore Through’, the lead track from The Blood Upon The Walls (2009) that explodes with an all-out, come-up house piano riff. But go back further and it still registers the DNA of ‘Late’ from 2004’s This is An Relegation, even if the serene register has been replaced with a more powerful dynamic. Likewise, ‘Dance On Nothing Until The Dancing is Done’, in which a sound-the-alarm synth, pumped up with manic aggression and city-at-night menace, recalls ‘Step Wrek’ from Zulus (2007) and ‘In Silence’ from All Of The Money (2014), but with a contorted soundscape of bulging, wavey keys to balance a jagged bassline.

Like ‘Dying on Merseyside’ from 2011’s Greeks! Greeks! Greeks!, ‘A Mersey Sound [In This My Home]’ obliquely explores the context of Bowers’s youth, tipping its hat to The Mersey Sound anthology of Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, published in 1967. The drum track riffs on ‘Chicago’ from All Of The Money In The Whole Wide World (2014) but the mood is far more pensive, with a lilting synth lead bubbling under the surface and a mournful bassline giving the track its doleful energy.

Clubby drum track 120 Minutes sees a whistling synth, like electric birdsong, bestride a series of unrelenting, choppy vocal ostinati, the ghoulish descendants of the voices sampled on All Of The Money In The Whole Wide World (2014). These disembodied interlocutors sound like the obsessive refrain from Moby’s ‘Porcelain’ finally let its hair down and, instead of staying in to take acid and read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, chomped on something spicier and jumped on the magic bus for a jaw-clencher in the industrial waste- turned warehouse clublands of North Manchester.

With its sidechained bassline and broad-brush piano chords, ‘90’s Teen’ starts off brooding, but then unfolds, bringing in a recurrent choral backing vocal arrangement beneath that distinctive, cut-up lead sample. It ends with a contemplative, dust-settling shimmer of piano straight from The Roar of the Guns (2003) playbook. To fully grasp what is at play here requires reflecting not just on the record at hand, but a back catalogue that takes rewriting as its birthright, the oeuvre as palimpsest, and treats the corpus as a script to be revised and reinterpreted over again in the unrelenting pursuit of new ideas.

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Let Manchester Shake will be available to stream on Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Apple Music.

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Josh Mcloughin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize in 2019. His work is published by The London Magazine, The Fence, The Times, Time Out London, South London Review, and others.