Salvo Idly. Two seemingly opposite words banded together to match the band of two—Jeremy Hollen and James Alton from Portland. And no, kids—it’s not Latin, or an esoteric Harry Potter spell: It’s English. The word salvo, to mean “a sudden burst” as from artillery or applause, and idly, an adverb that hints at a leisurely, nonchalant pace. This accidental name was plucked from guitarist and lyricist Jeremy Hollen’s idea notebook. I sat with the pair on a sun-dappled, forested hillside of Mount Tabor where Hollen recited for me the final stanza of the notebook poem that would become their name:
Too I brood the matter when
The sky it jabbers lightly
If as metal set to spin the
Sun will Salvo Idly
Incidentally, the name perfectly describes their sound. Drummer and bassist Alton provides the measured “Salvo” as Hollen’s intricate guitar work and intimate lyrics weave in the “Idly.” The band’s debut album, 81 Days, is a gentle barrage of slow, sure, swift attacks. Volleys of bass and percussion crash into finger-picked, ambling guitar. From the opener “Anomic Asteroid” to the ending title track, 81 Days is both bashing and beautiful.
The album title also echoes the band's name. 81 Days is a reference to studies which determined that, on average, 80 consecutive days of warfare was the maximum that WWI and WWII soldiers could withstand before experiencing mental breakdown. So here it is, Day 81—the day after the salvo ends and one can go about life more idly.
Hollen describes the collection of songs as “a coming-of-age piece,” and this idea is mirrored in the themes as well as their musical backgrounds. Hollen is a mostly self-taught guitarist, beginning at age 10, who only recently became classically trained. At 17, it was a near-fatal car accident that spurred him into writing and singing. Shortly after his own brush with death, Hollen lost two friends in a car accident and he describes how that tragedy opened the songwriter in him.
"Two nights later, I sat down and I wrote ‘Spotlight,’ which is a total outlier on the record, but more than any other song I can think of, that one came out in half an hour. After I uncorked, I’ve never been able to cork it again. I’ve written more songs than I know what to do with.”
Hollen cites formerly Portland-based poet Anis Mojgani as an inspiration. His lyrics are dense with poetics and evocative imagery and he delivers his sung prose with an internally rhythmic, almost spoken word style. You’ll find songs wedged with unusual, sophisticated words like anomic, inference, censure, pluvial, verve and magnanimous. There’s even a song named for a turquoise-green stone thought to originate from the Peruvian Amazon. Sonically, “Amazonite” punches and picks away, clicking off circular guitar phrases and mining in measures until it unleashes the rushing water of drums midway through like the Amazon River, only to drop back in with the sinuous, earthy bass again. This rapport and interplay between Hollen and Alton shines on the album, but it’s especially evident in the chatter and laughter left into the recordings as intro, outros, right in the middle, or all over the place as on “Amazonite.” It’s a private peek into their composition and performance.
As an early drummer, Alton was an ear-player who practiced playing to full records for hours on end, feeling his way through and imitating the complexities of his favorite drummers like Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater. Stylistically, those progressive rock and toned-down metal nuances find their way into 81 Days. He also took drum lessons and learned the language of time signatures to describe what he’d been hearing. And he’s a songwriter in his own right, but for this effort, bass playing was a new opportunity to learn something different besides drumming. He decided to go the self-taught route again, recalling how he wasn’t a particularly faithful student to drumming. “I don’t want to discredit it completely, but I’m proud of what I’ve come across and done on my own,” Alton says. “At the end of the day, it’s just what I hear that’s most important in drumming.”
What’s important to hear extends into the recording process on 81 Days as well. Alton confesses to being a huge fan of the idiosyncrasies and imperfections in homegrown, lo-fi recordings from artists such as Elliott Smith, where one can hear him adjusting his seat before he starts and clearing his throat.
“The whole premise of this record is this DIY thing,” Alton explains, “so in recording it, you hear all the reverb and the room sound. I wanted to do this as organically as possible so we didn’t want to use electronic instruments. I wanted everything to naturally have that effect. I don’t want it too clean. I like using a crappy mic, cranking the gain too hard—I think it sounds cool and I like the character of that for the record. You hear this thought process in the recording. I don’t think there’s anything mistaken about that.”
The hard-strummed, jangly guitar, breathless verses, and ghostly moans on “Adventure Story,” would be at home on Jeff Buckley’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, an album with a comparably raw and unpolished feel.
In addition to strains of Jeff Buckley, Hollen’s vocals summon a crisper, well-enunciated Rufus Wainwright in places, especially on the lovely “Spotlight” and “You Say,” the video for which is below.
Hollen recalls how he and and Alton met video director Tim Slew of Soundlapse at a Halloween party. “I basically contacted Tim and said, ‘I’ve been working for months on a scroll that’s 400 feet long and four feet tall. We want to shoot it with a song,’ and he said, ‘I know how to do it.’”
Salvo Idly’s “composer pop” sound reveals rock and jazz-fusion with underlying “near-classical motives.” In keeping with that sensibility, sheet music for “You Say” and “Spiders” plus full lyrics are available on the band's website for the follow-along set who want to delve deeper into the music.
The anthematic title track finishes the album as a lush feature piece for the best of what Hollen and Alton offer as a duo. “81 Days Of Warfare” comes in with an Iron and Wine feel before rolling, medieval war drums thunder softly underneath the guitar like fireworks in the distance, then the song explodes with rimshot gunfire, builds to what sounds like symphonic strings and synthesized-wind crescendo, and finally trails off like an alarm bell of harmonics.
The amazing secret? These layers are all produced by Hollen’s guitar.