Hollow Engine's Music Feels Anything But Empty
Erie natives' progressive rock outfit full of musical depth
It's easy to feel small in a big city. You think you've arrived at the place to be, but where is your place in this crazy confluence of people and situations and ideas? How is it that one can be surrounded by everyone and everything yet feel like no one and nothing? There is at times the sense of being lost in the vastness of space, each illuminated skyscraper and high-rise apartment building a star seemingly separated by a distance of light years.
Filter that angst through months of shelter-in-place and social isolation and you have the recipe for serious art. The native Erieites behind NYC-based band Hollow Engine channel those deep, challenging emotions into music that is not angry and frustrated but instead pensive and inquisitive, probing into the immensities of urban struggle on both a personal and societal level. Stylistically, Hollow Engine is an adventurous amalgamation of psych and prog rock, shoegaze, and jazz, citing a diverse set of influences including The Byrds, Milton Nascimento, Lo Borges, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Tages, Pink Floyd, and Dungen.
Hollow Engine — which consists of brothers Cory (guitar/keys/vocals) and Robin Peterson (drums), their high school friend Kevin Kniowski (bass/guitar/vocals), and later addition Griffin Novie (guitar/keys/vocals) — had lived in New York for eight years before releasing their self-titled first EP in 2018, the delay a byproduct of an uncompromising quest for a musical blend unique enough to call their own. The band labels it "the sound of continuous implosion" — you know, like a neutron star or black hole.
It's certainly more approachable than that — while viewing a live performance recording of their upcoming EP release Song of Tiny Notions, I do at times feel transported to another dimension, but there is certainly plenty of structure to keep me grounded. A solid core of rhythm, melody, and harmony provide the gravitational field as the band locks with security cameras looking on, lending the production a "grainy and voyeuristic aesthetic." Further reinforcing the retro vibes are excerpts from '70s astronomy education videos interlaced between songs or song sections.
Despite sophisticated chord progressions and use of modal mixture, none of the five songs veer too far into outer space, avoiding the gratuitous and self-serving asides often denounced by detractors of the psych and prog genres. I found myself especially drawn to the mellowly awestruck tones of "Aimlessly Away" and the groovy, blues-inflected riffs of closer "Strange World Outside My Window," but if you appreciate skilled musicianship (the Petersons are sons of a jazz musician), you'll find little not to like with Song of Tiny Notions.
After my initial listen, Cory took me through the creative process behind each track:
- "'Song of Tiny Notions' is about seeking purpose in the context of being an infinitely small part in the expanse of time and space. It explores how to be existentially whole when the connection between ourselves and our origins at the beginning of time is so distant. I wrote the piano music and melody to this song and shared it with the band and Kevin wanted to add sonic elements and lyrics that explored these themes. When writing the lyrics, I had Gene Clark's classic country rock album No Other, in mind with its introspective, cosmic themes and imagery. Robin's drums are a bit Ringoesque and the 12-string electric guitar adds some hints of 60s jangle pop."
- "'Aimlessly Away' is about waking to the realization that you've been dreaming about being close to someone who is far away and impossible to truly connect with, and the reluctance to give up the 'reality' experienced in that dream. The musical feel was probably inspired a bit by Brazilian music from the 70s that fused rock and roll with bossa nova and jazz. This song has a jazzy swing in 3/4 and 6/8 time and its lazy pace and meandering vocal melody on the chorus emphasize the themes and lyrics, e.g. 'Distance leaves our minds to ponder, pressing matters while time wanders, slowly aimlessly away, from our separate lives.' The somber tone is emphasized by lead guitar work that sounds like American country music."
- "'The Dent Within You' came together extremely quickly in the writing process. It came about when I bought a new guitar amp, which has a very unique 'harmonic tremolo' effect that sounds a bit like Band of Gypsies-era Jimi Hendrix. I was really inspired when I brought the amp home and improvised the majority of the guitar part. The intro and bridge also have a bit of a Brazilian vibe.
- "'Illuminated Pitch Black' is about feeling isolated by an inability to fit into the constructs of society, and addiction to content driven by the desire to escape reality. This song employs a bed of vintage Fender Rhodes piano, using dense jazzy chords, and blends this aesthetic with heavier psychedelic rock imparted by the rhythm section and guitar."
- "'Strange World Outside My Window' is a song about feeling so close to something that you can't grasp and the isolation that comes from that. You're probably seeing a theme in content of these songs by now. Distance and the yearning for connection."
If you've found yourself yearning to connect with some new tunes, be sure to listen by following the lhe links below: