The Hollow Men, Food Chain: Out in the Cold

Not to be confused with either the ‘80s/’90s British indie act or the T.S. Eliot poem from which both bands presumably take their name, hard rocking Dutch four-piece-turned-trio The Hollow Men mark their first offering in five years with the self-released Food Chain. At seven tracks/30 minutes, it skirts the line between EP and full-length, but what’s more certain is The Hollow Men’s penchant for penning catchy, well-structured songs, as demonstrated here. Because of that “demonstration” feel, I’m liable to call Food Chain an EP, and in that case, it’s the band’s third, following 2004’s The Hollow Men and 2006’s Music for Every Occasion and Every Mood, and after the departure of their lead guitarist in 2008, no doubt the result of some restructuring of approach. There’s a clean ‘90s style in the arrangement of the vocals, which prove to be what carries over most of the songs as effectively as they are carried over, and though the production is rough, there’s an accessibility shining through the material nonetheless. It’s more hard rock than heavy rock, but there are some particularly riffy moments for those craving that, and guitarist/vocalist Remko, bassist Robbert and drummer/vocalist Martin manage to convey a range of atmospheres in a relatively short amount of space.

Almost immediately, though, the production is an issue. Remko and Martin have a clean vocal interplay and are skilled at crafting vocal harmonies and catchy hooks. That comes across perhaps most of all on the first two Food Chain tracks, “Euphoria” and “Top of the Food Chain,” but the music backing them has a much rougher feel, most especially in Martin’s drums, but also in Robbert’s bass, which is present enough, but lacking a thickness and warmth of feel it should have to go as well with Remko’s guitar, also thin of tone and lifelessly recorded on the otherwise energetic rocker “Out in the Cold.” That’s not easy to get past, but if there’s anything that’s going to do it, it’s the vocals, which show surprising Alice in Chains and Danzig influences on that track and prove to be The Hollow Men’s most potent asset throughout Food Chain. As the EP plays out, increasingly it’s the vocals I want to focus on and not the instrumentation, and because the trio aren’t playing pure riff/stoner rock, that’s fine – I mean, I don’t think in listening one is supposed to follow the riff to the exclusion of everything else – but I still want the songs to be heavier in the production than they are, and louder almost universally.

“Throne,” which joins the more commercially-friendly Interscope-era Helmet guitar and bass complementing (it’s Robbert’s most present moment on Food Chain), doesn’t do much in the direction of changing that, but it does move the EP in a new direction and show some stylistic diversity from The Hollow Men, which they manage to affect without losing their songwriting appeal. The track, more punk-ish but still smooth and friendly, sets up the harder-hitting “Soldier,” which sounds slower and might actually be, but is certainly based on a more lumbering riff than anything else on Food Chain. Martin’s crash cymbal is put to good use keeping the time, and Robbert injects a few choice fills beneath Remko’s riffing following yet another engaging, hooky chorus, and Remko even takes a short guitar solo, which as the “not lead guitarist” in previous incarnations of the band, feels like a bold move. For what it’s worth, he does fine with it, but it’s still the overall songwriting that makes the cut a highlight of the EP. Nothing wrong with that.

A speedy punk etymology comes out even more than on “Throne” on the two-plus-minute “This is Not a Love Song,” which is mis-titled, because it most definitely is, and Food Chain closes with the semi-ballad “Bleeding,” which might just as likely be drawn back to Foo Fighters’ more subdued moments as to any number of other pop hard rock groups. The issue of production is pervasive again, and considering the European climate’s friendliness to well-written hard rock, I can’t help but feel like it’s really holding The Hollow Men back. If it was their debut EP, I’d chalk it up to a lack of experience – and this being their first release without a lead guitarist, maybe feeling their way into a new sound has something to do with it – but I can’t help but think they should be beyond this kind of misstep as this stage in their career. That said, a lot of good records have less than ideal recordings, and this is still a good record, it’s just lacking the vitality of feel and the immediacy that would really help make the listener feel that. I’d be interested to hear these songs live, and in making that the case, Food Chain succeeds, but those who would attempt to take it on should know there’s a lot about the way it sounds they’re going to have to look past before they can get to what’s most appealing.

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