Circles In Time
At 65 is music, indeed everything, nostalgia, merely a rerun of the familiar? Do we travel to the same location on holiday as we have for the last twenty years, do we simply listen to music that we did forty years ago? Is the objective simply to be reminded of the past?
If I listen to music from 1971 "John Barleycorn Must Die," my first LP, I am testing both Stevie and myself, do we still speak to each other? In that instance, the offering of blue eyed soul, jazz and folk does speak to me now we are still "in a relationship." The 'getting it together in the country,' walking the Berkshire Downs still happens it still means something.
As with everything I do not want more of the same, to simply go through the motions, I want to pass through an experience that says something unique, adds to the journey and then stays with me adding a layer or two.
John Holden makes music for himself and on the evidence of this third project he has retained his sense of inquiry his desire to move forward. He has discovered different musical valleys and dipped his fingers in different rivers and streams and then challenged himself to see how "Holden Music" comes out out of this altered landscape.
To the music then, we begin with something a little familiar, a move along from past glories.
It begins with what sounds like a mellotron stab some fizzing electronics before a furiously fast technical guitar riff and then opens up into a mid paced anthem almost Trevor Rabin, all bare chests and macho posturing of yesteryear but that is a false trail and it quickly changes again an ascending descending solo which maybe echoes Brian May's calculated outbreaks of 'metal' on Queens most aggressive music.
The heart of the piece emerges and Jean Pageau, the perfect vocalist for a power song, offers a verse of sardonic observation before he storms in with the multi tracked chorus. The music is robust aggressive and the lyrics sound angry. Misunderstandings in amongst the more general onslaught but it finishes with a determination to hold on to not lose our head.
Is this about armchair warriors and there determination to brow beat one? Governments pretending to persuade one with fakery? Governments that make the autocrats who make no bones about it 'do as your told!' seem more honest and probably more successful in their brutal honesty.
Libby has stood back from being too personal so the lyrics can work on several levels.
Personally, although I have failed miserably to disengage on occasions in the last fifteen months, stories like the withdrawal of Rider Haggard's 'Ayesha' from Thebes to Kor for a life of contemplation seem very enticing so as to avoid the avalanche of noise and half truths spun in the recent past. I can see how the anger in this song works, if not for the same reasons.
A robust entertaining start well executed, John Holden cementing the approach he adopted for "Dark Arts." on his previous work.
So how do you follow a big aggressive track, an acoustic juxtaposition? No!
The next piece moves into, well it presents the same problem as Steely Dan it cannot be pigeoned holed, it is full of soul, clever lyrics and gorgeous melodies and it extols that sense of style and sophistication that is particular, peculiar to New York. Glamorous, sexy and sophisticated. It's just great music which reflects its subject matter perfectly.
Towards the end it rides out with wonderful vibing from the Sax and Violin/Viola which are thrust along by the drums, you could be forgiven for believing they are all together in the studio it sounds so organic so connected. It is sophisticated, it's sexy and it's joyous. It is also a reminder John is a consummate mixer and producer.
The Secret of Chapel Field
Once again we dive off in an entirely different direction. This is upmarket Fairport Convention indeed the story of murder and the uncertainties which John and Libby emphasise reminds me of the way "John Babbacbombe Lee" works lyrically. Fascinating story telling set inside an exquisite musical landscape. The forces are relaxed but on point, lovely acoustic guitar and the violin returns for this piece to conjure up pathos and beauty in equal measure.
The two vocalists are crackajack, Sally Minnear offers wide eyed respectful love (but of whom) and Marc Atkinson achingly misunderstood perfectly mines the male narrative. This music touches one and conjures up Chapel Field and the story perfectly.
Dreams of Cadiz
And now wonderful Spanishry. Oliver Day shows what an accomplished guitarist he has become, getting inside the infectious spirit of the music. But I also love the use of piano with its slightly distant projection.As if we are sat in bar in Barcelona watching flamenco dancing accompanied by a duo.
A minute before the end there is a transition, which reminds me of Brian Wilson, and allows for a more traditional anglicised play out. "I am from the English tradition looking in on this beautiful music from Spain." We are the visitors soaking up the atmosphere. It takes me way back to a night of outdoor opera, not in Spain as I recall but Portugal, which elicited the same feeling.
Sally Minnear returns to offer the narrative which describes a recurring battle to fend off illness. The lyrics are auto biographical and remind me (my mother has been battling cancer and its affects for 36 years, winning half the battle and losing half the battle) of the constant ever present ebb and flow of joy and despair that goes with it. The rotating riff on which the vocal is built is the perfect musical metaphor in a sense you are trapped inside this narrow construction and occasionally John, through the arrangement, adds dark ominous stabs into the landscape interrupting that sense of being boxed in only to be threatened by dark uncontrollable forces. That is not entirely true at 3.04 an instrumental interlude that conjures up sublime precious heart felt love of its subject. Has there ever been a more beautiful synthesiser solo?
Nevertheless the mood is uplifting and inspirational rather than melancholic and downcast.
I am sure its not deliberate but for Libby to write about her experiences when everyone is transfixed by the consequences of a contagious respiratory illness is timely. Since May 2020 800 excess deaths have occurred in England every week at home and only 2% are connected to the Virus. Life must go on but death certainly is, in all its various forms.
I often say that the turning points in my musical listening journey had one simple commonality. "My god this is music I have been waiting for all my life." I will not burden these observations with examples but what is clear is John's view of what he wants to do with music as a creator is entirely the same view I take as a listener and none more so than KV62.
As soon as the stripped down libretto really gets underway I am reminded of Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love." Piano and voices telling a story. But before that we have a wonderful cinematic entrance narrated by Jeremy Irons. We are caste back in to the deep past of Egyptian mysticism two subjects which when entwined are of profound interest to me. It combines a feeling of Rider Haggard and Science Fiction perfectly. The adventurous aristocrats discovering/rediscovering ancient truths. The transition from past contemplation to present day exploring is beautifully executed by Nick Virgilio who offers perfectly judged percussive pattering.
Then Carter and Carnarvon begin their beautiful "Aspects of Insistence, of perseverance." You can feel their determination in the vocal delivery and the central tune is completely engaging.
The wordless orchestrated search takes us finally to the revelation of discovery but not before it offers all kinds of musical delights arabic motives, soulful searching and orchestral drum sounds before the next delightful tune which is presaged by a mysterious tension building cinematic entrance both musically and narratively .
And we are in! "Wonderful, wonderful things" another big tune piano ascending climbing with guitar and then a highly original synth solo and its not a solo for a solo's sake its taking us somewhere. The musical forces retreat and then great playing on the vibes (nice and dry sounding, like BIll Bruford) leads us to the response to their find.
We are now solidly in "Musical" Territory. A clever libretto, stripped down musical forces which mix vaudeville, ballad, orchestral, choral even church music flourishes, magnificent I have goosebumps, eventually the music reduces to a prayer which rebuilds and then finally collapses tender, heartfelt and profoundly moving.
This piece is not a rockaphonic, nor a musical, indeed it cannot be pigeon holed it is its own thing. Its music which provides the listener with a new experience, a new landscape to cross, in two words, a progression.