Rolo Tomassi closed out 2018 with a string of big moments. They did their second-ever US tour — comprising 12 dates on the West Coast — directly preceded by a brief run in their native UK, capped off with the biggest show of their career to date: headlining a sold-out Scala in London.
Dead Press wrote a very nice piece about the Scala show. Here’s the salient line:
Having been a band for more than a decade, the Brighton quintet have done more than their fair share of the toilet circuit, and with this year’s Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It receiving rave reviews, it’s finally their time to shine at the legendary Scala in Kings Cross.
“The toilet circuit.” Got that? “Finally their time to shine.” Got that, too? Perfect. So on the eve of the Scala gig, Rolo Tomassi keyboardist, co-vocalist, and founding member James Spence did an interview in which he reflected on the moment:
It’s gonna top off what’s been the best year this band has ever had. It feels like a celebration of a lot of hard work.
“A lot of hard work.” See, that’s something of an understatement. And yet, what would qualify as an accurate statement? What could? I’m struggling to provide a quantifiably fair appraisal and actually finding it impossible.
“A lot of hard work”? James and his younger sister Eva Spence have been making music together “since we were 13,” says James, and they’ve been doing it now for more than half their lives. James started Rolo Tomassi in 2005. Eva was 14 when she joined the band. Do you understand how young that is? Do you remember 14? Let me give you some context: The actress Elsie Fisher was 14 in 2017, when she was filming Eighth Grade, playing the role of Kayla, who is also 14.
A year later — when Eva was 15 — Rolo Tomassi released their self-titled debut EP, offering a “profligate mix of prog wonkery, hardcore, and Casiotone, with feints at death-metal and jazz licks,” as The Quietus described it. “One of 2006’s most amazing new discoveries,” wrote Drowned In Sound. “As an introduction to a band that could be a must-see once they’re old enough to tour properly, it’s practically faultless.”
“A lot of hard work”? Irrespective of whether they were old enough to tour properly, they spent the next two years of their lives touring extensively. The members of Rolo Tomassi were teenagers, all of them. Two years. Much of it on “the toilet circuit.” Rolo Tomassi released their debut album, Hysterics, in September 2008. Their debut album. Got that? The following line, then, comes from Sputnik Music’s review of Rolo Tomassi’s debut album:
“Having been a band for four years now, they have carved their own niche in the UK underground with their abrasive brand of grindcore-hardcore-electro-indie punctuated with spastic jazz freak outs.”
James was just 20 years old. Eva was just 18. On that note:
“A lot of hard work”? Rolo Tomassi ostensibly play “progressive hardcore,” i.e., music influenced by bands like Converge and Refused. They’ve long since grown beyond those influences, but that’s where they started. And if you know that scene, you know there aren’t many women on stage most of the time. Eva Spence, meanwhile, is Rolo Tomassi’s singer. She’s at the front of the stage and she’s been there since she was 14.
So anyhow, there’s one interview in which Eva was asked the following question:
“As a young woman, how do you deal with being in a masculine, testosterone heavy environment?”
I’m sure she’s been asked some version of this question thousands of times over the course of her career, but here’s how she answered it then:
[I]t used to be a lot worse when I was younger. When I wasn’t even 18, it was dreadful, I don’t think people really understood how young I was. But now, it doesn’t happen that much. I think I’ve heard everything that could be possibly shouted at me, and now I’m just like, “whatever.” If you’re going to come and shout at me, I don’t even care. Shout until you’re blue in the face. You’re just an idiot. Sometimes I’ll have a laugh about it after the show.
That interview was conducted in 2013. That was five years ago. At that time, by my math, Eva was 23. Try to imagine the “dreadful” shit Eva Spence was hearing when she “wasn’t even 18.” Try to imagine, at 23, being able to say these words: I think I’ve heard everything that could be possibly shouted at me, and now I’m just like, “whatever.”
“A lot of hard work”? Rolo Tomassi’s second album, 2010’s Cosmology, was produced by Diplo. Diplo! Do you understand how remarkable that is? Almost nobody else in the world had even heard of Rolo Tomassi, but somehow, Diplo (!!) had heard them and he liked them so much that he asked them (!!!) if he could produce the next one. At that time, by my math, James was 22, leading a band that played complicated, frenetic, dense, extremely loud and almost entirely inaccessible music. How much did he allow that music to be altered by one of the world’s biggest and most influential producers? Per The Quietus:
[Diplo’s] input is almost imperceptible. As a guiding spirit and creative conduit, though, it seems he’s helped to clear the air. Ultimately, though, it’s down to the band’s intelligence and iron will that Cosmology is a genuine tour de force, returning Rolo Tomassi to very vanguard of extreme rock.
That was eight years ago. Rolo Tomassi were still kids, basically, still living at home with their parents. In fact, parts of their third album, 2012’s Astraea, were recorded at the Spences’ parents’ house. Rather than try to make a living off their music, they got jobs, moved out, and made weirder music. They were already at “very vanguard of extreme rock,” but they were still finding their own voice. They were getting harder and smarter. They were getting better. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what The Quietus had to say about Astrea:
Astraea is Rolo Tomassi’s third full length studio LP and clearly their best to date. After a successful experiment with Diplo producing on 2010’s Cosmology, the band have opted to take on these duties themselves with help from Jason Sanderson (who produced their 2008 debut Hysterics). But anyone thinking that they have backed away from pop, ambient, shoegaze, black metal, prog, and techno textures should be reassured that they have actually ventured further out into those realms — pop/ambient especially … Rolo Tomassi are miles ahead of the game not just because they are constantly trying to break new ground but also because they have entered a nuclear arms race of progressiveness with their own back catalogue. Most outliers in any given musical field — whether that’s been Brian Eno, Anaal Nathrakh, or Lee Perry – realize the importance of treating their back catalogue as if it belongs to the enemy, especially if other people aren’t trying as hard as they are.
“A lot of hard work”? Between 2012 – 2013, Rolo Tomassi turned over three-fifths of their lineup. (The only original remaining members are the Spence siblings.) On February 2, 2015 — exactly one decade after the formation of Rolo Tomassi — the band announced fourth LP, Grievances. Here’s what the Spence siblings said in that announcement:
Eva: At 10 years in I feel more enthused than ever with where we’re at as a band. With Grievances, we followed on from the sound we developed on Astraea and pushed that even more so to make an album we’re all really proud of and which I consider to be our best material to date.
James: Creatively we wanted to do something ambitious and took our time in making sure the material was right. We tried new ways of writing including collaborating with other musicians for the first time to make sure we could capture the feel we wanted on this record.
That sort of language is de rigueur for long-standing bands that are both (A) celebrating an anniversary and (B) releasing new material. It’s usually absolute bullshit, of course. For Rolo Tomassi, though? For Grievances? Per Drowned In Sound:
Ten years on from their formation Rolo Tomassi sound completely different to the teenage outfit that emerged, kicking and screaming, from the Sheffield underground. That’s not to say they have lost their vicious hardcore inclinations, or their rampant commitment to chaos. Instead it’s merely to point out that, as exciting as they were all those years ago (and trust me if you missed it — they were bloody exciting), they are now so, so much better … It’s an amazing thing to be able to say that a band sound like they could do anything they put their mind to, but it’s something I can say about Rolo Tomassi without hesitation.
“A lot of hard work”? Rolo Tomassi spent nearly three years making the follow-up to Grievances. That album came out in March of 2018. It’s called Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It. Its release was preceded by a single called “Aftermath.” Here’s what James said to Upset Magazine about both “Aftermath” and Love Will Bury It:
There are some real big pop moments across the record. We’ve been trying to write songs like that for so long, and we’ve never just got it right. With ‘Aftermath,’ we’ve nailed it, and we’ve made it work within one our own records.
Try to imagine how much of a motherfucking badass you have to be to even say something like that when half your audience is wearing Gorguts T-shirts and the other half is wearing Dillinger Escape Plan hoodies. In that scene, nobody says shit like that. Then try to imagine backing up those words with a song that sounds like this:
Here’s James again:
The aim was to write a record that was as beautiful as it was heavy.
For most bands, this would not be an unusually impressive accomplishment. Most bands write music that is neither especially heavy nor remarkably beautiful, and as such, achieve a basic equilibrium without even trying. But Rolo Tomassi’s music is at or near a 10 on both sides of the scale, and it’s no small feat to balance the two extremes without compromising both. Rolo Tomassi compromise nothing. On “Aftermath,” Eva’s voice is a dead ringer for the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. After “Aftermath,” the next time you hear Eva’s voice on Love Will Bury It — in track 3, “Rituals,” approximately 45 seconds after “Aftermath” ends — it is a different beast. Emphasis on “beast.” Now, without warning, it is a savage demonic blast, a rabid froth, a bad trip scored by black metal on a boombox. It sounds like a building burning down.
It’s not just Eva. Everything else sounds different, too, and everything everywhere sounds hostile. The guitars are mechanized, merciless, unyielding, inhuman. The drums are automatic-rifle rounds unloaded by an entire artillery. “Rituals” sounds like a midnight military strike. And even within this shift, there are shifts. At one point, Eva is howling into a broken megaphone or a cheap distortion pedal, an echo of Alice Glass in Crystal Castles. At another point, the chaos is cut by James’ keys, here an ominous ascending piano plink, like the android skeleton in the opening credits of Westworld. These are softer textures, but they pretend to offer no respite and they provide the opposite. Everything that doesn’t sound like a weapon sounds like a wound. Everything everywhere sounds like carnage.
“A lot of hard work”? Love Will Bury It is roundly recognized as Rolo Tomassi’s finest work to date. Until slipping a spot in Q4, it spent the majority of 2018 atop Metacritic’s list of the year’s best-reviewed albums.
I won’t lie: I slept through the first 12 years of Rolo Tomassi’s career, and it took me about a month to figure out what they were even doing on Love Will Bury It. Once I got it, though, I never looked back. Nothing else came close. This wasn’t an album, I realized, it was a novel — or anyway, it was employing an abstract approach to traditional narrative framework to achieve the payoff and power of a novel. At least … I think?
I won’t get into what I think, though. I can’t do it. I’m not up to the challenge. I spent the better part of 2018 trying to write about Love Will Bury It. I wrote and wrote. I wrote so much. I wrote a book, basically. No lie. It wasn’t nearly as good as Love Will Bury It. And it was too much. I didn’t even know what to do with what I wrote. I still don’t. I gave up.
“A lot of hard work”? Now see, I know from hard work, and that was “a lot of hard work.” When Rolo Tomassi played Scala last month? They were celebrating a whole entire goddamn lifetime.
Love Will Bury It is the best possible introduction to Rolo Tomassi, because it is their best album, if not the best album. And even though they have been working forever to get to this point, they are just now at the very beginning. Today, by my math, James is 30 and Eva is 28. By comparison, Kevin Shields was 28 when Loveless was released. Bilinda Butcher was 30. As James said in the pre-Scala interview, Rolo Tomassi are still figuring out what comes next:
I think the difficult thing when you write music with no rules is you can have option paralysis, because there’s so many choices and directions and when people don’t know what to expect from you, it’s even harder to deliver. If you’re in any kind of specific genre, you know what kind of record people want from you. But, for us, we can literally do whatever we want, and it’s as terrifying as it is liberating. I think certainly when we try to follow-up this record we’re gonna feel that a lot more, but it’s the kind of pressure that we need.
The Scala show was a celebration, so they filmed it. And today, we’re premiering video of one of the songs they performed that night. It’s from Love Will Bury It. It’s called “Contretemps.”
I won’t say “Contretemps” is the “best song” on Love Will Bury It because, like I said, that’s not how the album works — nobody tries to “rank” the chapters of a novel, do they? (Do they?) But I will say: “Contretemps” is my favorite song of 2018, off my favorite album of 2018, and I’m pretty happy to be here in December, writing something, finally, and able to share this. All of this, I mean — but especially THIS:
Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It is out now via Holy Roar.