Led by singer/songwriter John Orth, Florida-based indie band Holopaw have molded epic statements more than they've been on any regular release schedule with their albums. Academy Songs, Vol. 1 is their fourth album, arriving 12 years after their inception. The highly ornamented and painstakingly arranged album follows more delicate early fare, and presents a song cycle based around a loose narrative taking place at an all-boys academy. While highly conceptual in nature, Orth is never direct enough with his lyrics to branch off into a full-on concept album. The themes are vague enough that they could be applied to any number of relationships or situations, and far more captivating are the arrangements and dynamic shifts in orchestrations that make up the cyclical nature of the album. The rhythmic push of "Golden Sparklers" flows organically through various sections loaded with spare percussion, distant backing vocals, and interweaving melodies shifting keys dramatically. The song is a standout early on and represents the strongest elements of Academy Songs, Vol. 1. At his best, Orth manages to stitch together ideas from what seems like it could be a half dozen different songs, all with enough momentum and confidence to never come off hackneyed. The nervously zigzagging rhythms of "Infidels" approach similar dimensions, moving along with purpose through various dynamic shifts. Elsewhere, the mood is a bit too hushed for its own good, with songs like "Bedfellows Farewell" and "Diamonds" so slow and gentle they draw attention more to the post-goth emo qualities of Orth's voice, which at its worst sounds like a huskier Conor Oberst emulating Robert Smith. Mention of Orth's early involvement with Modest Mouse main main Isaac Brock's side band Ugly Casanova comes up often when discussing Holopaw, but the Northwestern ennui that touched earlier albums (and defined Brock's songwriting at its peak) is less present here. Orth seems committed to developing a complex and insular environment with these songs, and though the plot of the story seems somewhat nebulous, a sonic narrative gets clearer with repeated listening. The album is bookended with what are essentially two readings of the same song; "Academy" charges out of the gate with drums thunderously loud in the mix, while "Golden Years" closes the album with a repetition of softly chanting group vocals. In between, all the ambitious turns and sharp dynamic spikes build a tension that seems to reach some strange and comforting resolution by the album's end. It's an obtuse story arc, to be sure, but by the end we feel like we've at least witnessed someone going through something important, even if we can't quite connect to it ourselves or even be sure what it is.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas