Margin walkers

Mar 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

Sean Hoen's eyes are red-rimmed. The Holy Fire vocalist-guitarist is clad in black from head to toe, which makes his fair skin appear nearly translucent; a mess of twisty white-blond hair completes the icy look. Hoen's just lugged open the heavy industrial door that guards the entrance to a cavernous Trumbull Avenue warehouse. It's home to the band's practice space, and as he leads the way down a wide hallway clogged with tour van back seats, the muffled sounds of other groups tearing away at the rock 'n' roll dream are heard from behind closed doors. Holy Fire will embark on its own journey in 2006 — a new label, a new EP, major touring and a full-length on the way. But right now Hoen isn't talkative. "I've gotta warn you," he says with a pained smile, "me and Nathan are sick as dogs."

Nathan Miller, the band's bassist, stands inside the space. Tall and square-jawed, he has the blocky handsomeness of a young Brian Dennehy, and black frame glasses that add a touch of earnestness. Drummer Nick Marko and Holy Fire's most recent addition, guitarist Erik Maluchnik, are laid out nearby. They resemble factory workers after a backbreaking day. They settle on some amps as Miller begins to relate the backstory.

Miller and Hoen used to play in the local post-hardcore unit Thoughts of Ionesco, and the Holy Fire's initial stirrings came through a mutual love of legendary groups like Fugazi, Big Black and Hüsker Dü. When Miller joined in late 2003, it was still an unnamed project of Marko and Hoen's: a reason to drink heavily and write songs with arcing guitars and scary song titles. But early recording sessions in Toronto gave birth to a sound-defining, eponymous debut 2005 EP, a batch of songs immersed in the anxious wanting of '90s indie rock but with hooks and big guitar moments grafted on. This is all wrapped up in "Sleeping, Screaming Boy." It begins in a murmur of minor chords and snare drum, but then Hoen's voice rises like a man suddenly provoked, and the melody shifts to something pleading and a little angry, "Do you need someone to scream you/To sleep anymore?" he asks. "Do you need some corner to shove/All the things that you love?"

The emotions in the songs often seem detached at first, like Hoen's Benadryl-deflated torpor. But the feelings, failings and fuck-yous are soon revealed as seething embers. Caution: hot surface.

Holy Fire signed with the Militia Group earlier this year. They were heartened by the southern California label's personal approach, but also its other recent signings, promising indie and post-everything acts like Jealous Sound and Appleseed Cast. Post-everything is how the members of Holy Fire see themselves.

On their new EP, In the Name of the World, they draw from their initial influences. But they aren't afraid to punch up the melodies, lighten the lead vocal with harmonies or equate love with grime. It's a contemporary sound with feeling that nonetheless refuses to be pegged as "emo," that catchall tag for young bands who pair melodramatic soliloquies with pogo moments, and, of course, great hair. The Holy Fire say it in unison, as they stand in their practice space flanked by Iron Maiden posters: "We're not emo." And you believe them. Because this is a band on the verge, musicians who got here their own way and they're not going to dumb down their seething, anxious sound for something fleeting or slick. "So give us a song," Hoen sings on the title track to In the Name of the World, and Marko's snare reports like he's counting off a march into battle. "We just want to know if you can spare a word to hang on."

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]