Trophy Scars, it’s fair to say, don’t believe in doing things by halves. In fact, they’re more inclined to do things in doubles. The latest album from the Morristown, New Jersey quartet was initially worked up as a 35-page screenplay treatment by vocalist and lyricist Jerry Jones, and is conceptually even more ambitious than 2011’s Never Born, Never Dead EP, which took reincarnation as its theme. Holy Vacants uses as its springboard what Jones admits is a bizarre cocktail of mythology, ancient religion and conspiracy theory surrounding the Nephilitic gene and was initially planned as a double album. The band imagined it would take that long to tell his tale of two lovers who have discovered not only that the blood of angels contains the fountain of youth, but also the formula for Qeres. This ancient Egyptian perfume is claimed to be the only substance that can kill angels and Nephilites, who are supposedly the offspring of angel/human unions. Armed with this knowledge and a supply of precious Qeres, the couple embark on a killing spree, drinking spilled Nephilitic blood to stop growing old.
It’s a great, if OTT fantasy. But Holy Vacants is not the product of some teen-goth imagination overly influenced by stoned, late-night readings of the ‘Twilight’ series or repeat viewings of True Blood. Jones’ narrative may be conceptually out-there, but it doesn’t fence the album in and stands as a metaphor for far simpler and more widely recognized issues – the idealization of youth, loss of identity and corrupted innocence. It’s also his personal way of drawing a line under an intense past relationship. “I didn’t want to write something so direct and specific that I had to follow the story the whole way through,” the singer and Communications graduate with a major in screenwriting explains. “When it boils down to it, the themes are applicable to romantic love songs. The album was really an exorcism of a relationship with a girl I had proposed to, and it was about being so in love with somebody that they literally destroy you. The only way I know how to go through that kind of therapy is to present it as art. I had to write the album as a way of exorcising this person from my mind and soul. I wanted a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, because I’ve always loved that. There’s something beautiful about the idea of rebelling together against something and losing yourself in the rebellion to the extent that it destroys your life. It’s the doomed romanticism thing.”
Holy Vacants is Trophy Scars’ fourth album and was two years in the making. It was also intended as their last, not because of any cataclysmic upset in the band, but because the four – Jones, John Ferrara (guitarist), Andy Farrel (bass player) and Brian Ferrara (drummer) – felt that after eight years, it had run its course. In the summer of 2010, Jones found himself living in LA, “a little bit lost, I guess, and thinking that we were done. I thought we had one more record in us and we wanted to make it a double. We wanted to go out with a bang.” Guitarist Ferrara, who Jones calls “an unbelievable composer”, sent the singer some bare-bones riffs and he found himself connecting with them immediately, hearing how they might work with strings here, a Moog and organ, maybe some brass and an all-girl choir there. Together, the pair brought Jones’ quasi-mystical concept to life. But despite a shared admiration for the scale and impact of double albums like Use Your Illusion I and II, The River and (especially) The Wall, the band settled on a single. “We wanted it to be our magnum opus,” Jones explains, “but we didn’t want to start adding songs just to make it a long record.”
It’s a magnum opus, certainly, but also much more. Far from being the band’s farewell, Holy Vacants constitutes a complete rebirth. And listening to the likes of opener “Archangel” and “Qeres”, whose free-wheeling but complex and cathartic, psychedelic blues calls to mind Comets On Fire, it’s obvious the band have moved light years away from their post-hardcore early years. They reveal their admiration for fellow New Jersey son Springsteen, circa Darkness on the Edge of Town with “Crystallophobia”, “Everything Disappearing” and “Extant”, and for Jimi Hendrix via “Hagiophobia”, while elsewhere there are echoes of Guns N’ Roses and The Mars Volta. But what might sound like an unworkable agglomeration of disparate parts is an intense and cohesive, hugely compelling whole, with powerful contrasts that make for a visceral immediacy.
Ferrara’s skill at laying out the panoramic sonic picture and his mastery of dynamic builds, plus Jones’ love of graphic novels and comics, the work of David Lynch and TV series like ‘The Wire’ (one episode of which suggested the album’s title) are equally responsible for the record’s impact. Also key is the contribution of long-term producer Chris Badami, who’s worked with the likes of Mike Patton and The Dillinger Escape Plan and who Jones describes as “the fifth member of Trophy Scars. I’ve said it before, but he’s our George Martin, essentially. He brought out some of the best talent in The Beatles and I think Chris Badami has done that for us."
“The making of this record opened a whole new door, in all of our minds,” Jones enthuses. “When we started doing all the pre-production on Holy Vacants, we realized how much more we had to investigate in ourselves and what we were capable of. So, it’s been the inspiration to future Trophy Scars albums and made us aware that we could write another, huge record, although obviously we don’t know what shape that would take. But instead of being a send-off, Holy Vacants has given us a total reboot.”
An invigorated future for a talented band that was about to bow out suggests that creativity is the elixir of life, rather than the blood of angel/human hybrids. Who knew?