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VMP Rising: Bruiser and Bicycle

On January 26, 2024

VMP Rising is our series where we celebrate up-and-coming bands and put their music on vinyl, often for the first time ever. Our newest VMP Rising artist is Bruiser and Bicyclewhose sophomore album, Holy Red Wagonis in our store now.

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Bruiser and Bicycle are seeking spiritual purification. 

The Albany-based band, helmed by Nick Whittemore and Keegan Graziane, are dead serious when they tell me this. Casually cerebral in their delivery, they chat with me about the cataclysmic events that serve as the basis for their albums and their attempts to "invoke a sense of explosiveness” in their writing. They sound like a cross between doomsday preppers and prophets as they point out the original album artwork for Holy Red Wagon, which is still hanging in Graziane's room. After a crash course in the alchemy that informed the symbols scattered throughout the record, the idea that the album might hold the key to sonic salvation starts to make a lot of sense to me.

The duo puts their fascination with extremes on full display throughout Holy Red Wagon, which simultaneously feels like a religious awakening and an existential crisis. Over nine sprawling songs (the shortest still clocking in at more than five minutes), their art-rock, sibylline lyrics make me wonder if they’re channeling some higher power as they sift through a deluge of creation myths and seismic riffs. It should be an overwhelming auditory assault. But the twinkling keys and their maximalist-pop approach take on a magical quality that transforms the songs into sacred spells. 

“[Holy Red Wagon] is a feeling of being intensely alive, like an affirmation of life,” says Graziane.

Despite the planet’s apocalyptic circumstances, Bruiser and Bicycle manages to make this life-giving affirmation palpable with unbridled joy. The two first met in the high school band. Graziane started sporting a Joy Division T-shirt, and Whittemore asked if he wanted to jam. Soon after, they recorded two singles and their 2017 EP, You’re All Invited, which laid the groundwork for more of their freaky-fun music.

While they now have a rotating cast of bandmates to play with and bring on tour, Whittemore and Graziane still make up the core of the group. Shortly after releasing 2019's Woods Come Find Me, they started conceptualizing their next record. "We were toying around with songs that were a little bit longer, more hypnotic, and building on ideas of a bigger sound,” says Graziane.

Intending to make a more ambitious record, these early song ideas, including "Superdealer," began taking form in late 2019. But as they started manifesting their creativity, COVID-19 started to surge like a dystopian dream — an eerie shift that echoed the otherworldly energy of the record they were conjuring.

Due to social distancing restrictions, the duo spent much of Holy Red Wagon’s early recording in isolation. Stuck in his studio apartment, Graziane worried about his neighbors getting annoyed by his constant guitar playing; Whittemore worked overnight shifts at a rehab facility. The claustrophobic, closed-off feeling of being completely removed from reality allowed them to spend endless amounts of time tweaking each track and creating the dense lore that decorates the record. "Everybody in the world was feeling really constricted, but for us that was our beacon,” says Whittmore.

Even though it felt like the walls were closing in, Bruiser and Bicycle found escapism with sources like Splendor Solis, a book dating from the 1500s full of illuminated alchemical text that inspired the sun motif that appears throughout the album. “When I was referring to the sun, it was almost like having your mind explode, like 'Oh my god, holy shit,' this is a crazy intense experience,” says Graziane.

That revelatory quality appears throughout Holy Red Wagon, along with the other spiritual wisdom Graziane gleaned from albums like XTC’s Skylarking. While he and Whittemore had their respective fonts of inspiration, they both drew on the ruptured song structures of Fiery Furnaces and tropicália melodies. During this time, when the future of live music remained so uncertain, they prioritized creating a high-fidelity record and gave themselves more space to experiment in the studio.

As restrictions began to ease, they made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia in November 2020 to record at Headroom Studios, where local legends like Alex G and Algernon Cadwallader cut their teeth. The duo would make the four-hour drive from New York with Whittemore fresh off their night shifts to grind out grueling sessions, often doing multiple takes of the same seven-minute vocals. Graziane recalls one session where he spent 13 hours just tracking the guitar for “Forks of the Jailhouse.” They did some additional recording at Double Ought, another Philly studio run by their friend Scoops Dardaris who mixed, engineered, and produced the album.

In many ways, the recording process was as intense as the album itself, a sort of baptism by fire felt in the finished product. Even in the high on the prolonged adrenaline rush of creating Holy Red Wagon, the duo had moments where they wondered if they might be a little in over their heads. “I was nervous because of the scope of the record we envisioned. I wasn’t sure if it was going to fall apart under its own weight,” says Whittemore. “We never worked on anything on the scale of this record.”

But of course, the record didn’t collapse.

Instead, Bruiser and Bicycle emerged from their years of tunnel vision and ardent precision with their magnum opus. The grandiose record radiates their voracious appetite for expansion and mimics the careening, topsy-turvy twists and turns of real life. Swirls of psychedelia and sparkling synthesizers ornament the fairytale-like storylines they spin. In the bleak days of lockdown, it seems impossible to imagine a world that is so bright exudes with magnetic light.

At the heart of Bruiser and Bicycle is an unrelenting adoration for life itself. Whether we really believe that Holy Red Wagon possessed a spiritual purification that saves our souls every time we hit play or if this is just some magnificent fragment of modern mythology, it is undeniable that they have created something transcendent. It is unabashed and awe-inspiring from confrontations with the reaper on “1000 Engines” to the album’s entire guiding throughline of hope that unwinds like Ariadne's thread.

Whittemore and Graziane ended our conversation with their eyes to the future, quipping that they hope Bruiser and Bicycle achieves world domination. We laughed it off, but, in my mind, there is no doubt they could do it. They have the power to fend off darkness and usher in a new dawn. The ability to create a new world when they’ve grown sick of this one. The proof vibrates in every word, every riff, and every second of Holy Red Wagon.


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