Estonians Holy Motors’ Second Album is the Perfect Shoegaze Western Soundtrack

Estonians Holy Motors’ Second Album is the Perfect Shoegaze Western Soundtrack

Like a shoegaze band lost in a Spaghetti Western, Holy Motors continues refining their dreamy twang on their sophomore album, Horse.

Taking an outsider’s view on a familiar subject leads to unexpected pleasures, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the music of Holy Motors. The Estonian four-piece’s debut album Slow Sundown in 2018 introduced the world to their unique take on what shoegaze cowboys would sound like. They’ve taken it even further on their newest album, Horse, released on October 16.. The dreamy shoegaze sounds of guitarists Lauri Raus and Gert Gutmann are anchored by the drums of Caspar Salo and accompany Eliann Tulve’s voice. Together, they create unexpected music that combines rich dream pop and shoegaze sounds with twangy country and Americana.

Horse shows the band at home writing moody songs about imaginary vistas inspired by their own travels, as well as songs simply about love and loneliness. Tulve’s voice has that breathy, often detached quality that makes it feel like classic shoegaze, but she always has plenty of emotion lurking just below the surface. The guitar work is at once simple and intricate, melding great droning chords with intricate riffs, all drenched in twangy and echoey effects. All together, it’s a killer sound that’s like no one else out there.

Reverby guitar laconically opens the album alongside Tulve’s gentle, easygoing voice with “Country Church.” It’s a slow beginning, but quickly becomes a grooving melody when the drums kick in and the guitars start driving. The bright rolling sound keeps the song upbeat. As it continues, however, Holy Motors cannot deny their country sensibilities that shine through their shoegaze sound. The early lines, “Hold your horses cowboy / Put your pickup in reverse / You got a lovely life back home,” give way later to the admission, “I don’t know who loves who back home.” There’s a great little country rock guitar solo, and the song grooves along until that halting rhythm returns for the finale.

A dramatic guitar strum opens “Endless Night,” the next track. The song begins full of menace, dark and haunting. But the chorus brings a brief brightness with shaking vibrato in the background under Tulve’s voice singing: “It’s another endless night.” The verses describe classic Western scenes, with quarrelling men, thieves, and jewels. A spaghetti western influenced guitar solo adds to this cinematic feeling, crackling with both twang and overdrive. Holy Motors’ love of Western Americana is on full display here, and combined with their shoegaze sound and Tulve’s distinctive voice, this song shows you just what makes their sound so special.

“Midnight Cowboy,” the next track, begins quietly with scattered guitar picking and scratching. It’s a dour beginning, with the lines “A little late to the party / Everyone’s got somebody.” When the guitars emerge and begin two dueling riffs, it creates an atmosphere of moody, lost love. The guitar riffs are juicy and they layer over each other, playing give and take and creating a tapestry of sound. It’s a gently swaying song, full of understated desire. Tulve usually sings in a detached way, but there’s always emotions simmering just beneath the surface. The moaning background vocals highlight the neediness of the song, and for all the suppressed emotions, it ends sweetly.

An acoustic guitar appears and its strums open the next track, “Road Stars.” For the first time Raus joins Tulve on vocals, singing a duet that winds a little story between two lonely people. The refrain they sing together again and again, “I know one day I’ll be better than before,” gives the song a hopeful feeling, but there’s a darkness that it can’t quite shake. It’s a gentle and sweet song with clear instrumentation, and Holy Motors clearly has no trouble stepping back from their dreamy shoegaze sound to try something new. And who doesn’t love a song about two people out on the road trying their best to make things better?

The next track, “Matador”, is all tension. A repeating, snarling guitar riff takes bendy detours, guiding the track along and keeping things low and restive. Tulve’s voice has an extra huskiness, and when the chorus comes along, she repeats the words “The Matador” in a hypnotic, irresistible way. The winding, effects drench guitar run that accompanies those lines is a killer. The track feels like you’re floating through some desert dreamscape. When things quiet down in the middle, a single cymbal hit is the only thing keeping things on track. The song cuts loose for one last chorus and guitar that solos off into the end of the song. 

“Come On, Slowly” is a melancholy, yearning track, and Tulve’s breathy vocals are the undeniable centerpiece. The slow, echoing drums create a steady base, while the guitars wind their way around with riffs that separate and come together repeatedly. Tulve crafts a moody, lonesome story: 

Now the night has come in a lonesome town

Where the road signs have lost their glow

And the folk have gone on home 

She hides away all alone.

The chorus adds to the loneliness: “Come out, Come out and let the night cry with you.” The track takes its time and the sound is rich with simple instrumentation, a little guitar solo and mostly slow and simple riffs. But Tulve’s voice becomes an instrument itself, her vocalizations adding another layer as the song comes to a close. It’s a delightfully wistful track.

The penultimate track, “Trouble,” sounds like the opening to a trippy Western, with drums that could be on a surf rock track and guitars flush with growl and reverb. There’s an uneasiness throughout the track. Tulve’s low and vulnerable voice sounds more haunting on this track, enhanced by the guitar atmosphere. The crackling picking of the guitars never lets you feel at ease, and when Tulve sings, “Down by the sea /where I was born / I was born and now I lay there,” she echoes the opening lines of the song, but instead of focusing on being abandoned, now it ends with simply laying there alone. The song leaves you in that anxious place, as those menacing guitar plucks fade.

“Life Valley (So Many Miles Away)” closes the album, and it’s a rhythm-heavy instrumental track. One guitar is all reverb and echo, creating a pleasant drone for the other guitar to riff over. All the while the drums just groove along. After plenty of menace, this song gives you reassurance. The darkness that Holy Motors evokes in their Western vibes doesn’t always win out. Sometimes grooving guitar and some hand drumming can make it all feel alright. There’s a splash of droning backing vocals, but the soloing guitar is the real centerpiece here. It’s a great aural weaving that slowly fades out and brings the album to a finish.

Often finding darkness and freedom in equal measures, Holy Motors evokes a whole imaginary Western landscape through their music. It can be growling with menace, or just a wild and trippy ride. The band highlights their undeniable cinematic qualities on their second album. The simply titled Horse is a rich, deep album full of some absolutely fantastic shoegaze sounds that always has a fun Western twist. Even when the album is reveling in melancholy, it’s always a great time.


Top Photo by Grete Ly Valing