Let’s write something about Holden, shall we? Wikipedia says he was born in Exeter in June 1979, which means he was almost certainly born in the same hospital as me, and which makes him three weeks younger than me. I’ve only, knowingly, heard his music for the first time about three weeks ago, despite being aware of him – as a name dropped by both musicians and critics I respect – for a decade, if not more. You can’t investigate everything at the time.
The Inheritors is an enormous record. Massive. Huge. Tectonic. Holden has talked about holidaying in the Scottish Highlands as a kid and wanting to make music that would work in that environment, and, even though this record is made almost exclusively on a gigantic modular synthesiser, that makes sense to me. I’ve connected techno or electronica or whatever you want to call it to massive landscapes since I was 17 and listening to Orbital on clifftops. I want to take this record and play it in the middle of Dartmoor. Ideally through a massive soundsystem, but just via a pair of Koss Portapros will do, at a push.
When Dan Snaith released Andorra in 2007 (one of my favourite records ever) he talked about the influence of James Holden’s production on the final two tracks, which spectacularly departed the 60s-tinged psychedelic laptop pop of the rest of the record. Specifically he talked about the idea of dance music that teetered on the edge of chaos and collapse, which pushed patterns and systems to the very threshold of tolerance. The Inheritors feels, at points, as if it goes ever so slightly beyond that threshold. I’m obsessed by it.
This modular synthesiser, which Holden played as part of the Caribou Vibration Ensemble at All Tomorrow’s Parties in December 2011, and which is the size of a garden shed, produces a sound so massive and rich and full of reverberation, so compelling and overwhelming at the same time, that it threatens to break your head open from the inside with the sheer, unnatural weight of sound. At times it is on the absolute cusp of being unbearable to me sonically, especially when Holden is pumping weird sub-percussion alongside it via a massive dose of side-chaining, and the entire sound, like some throbbing beast, pulses in and out of itself (see, or rather hear, “Sky Burial” for evidence of what I mean). But other moments, like the opening bodhran percussion of “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, are, by contrast, incredibly tangible and real, rendered with bizarre naturalism. Add then torn apart by streams of semi-chaotic jazz saxophone. Astonishingly.
On headphones, especially very good Austrian ones running off a dedicated headphone amplifier, it sounds absolutely extraordinary, the soundstage moving in subtle ways that you’d barely perceive if it was pumping through speakers. The dappling repetitions of “The Illuminations” disintegrate at the edges, the aural equivalent of bokeh in a photograph, when you deliberately throw lights out of focus to get that beautiful, evocative blur of colour. The sound smears itself through your skull the same way.
At 75 minutes and 15 songs, The Inheritors isn’t just big sonically, it’s also a monolith of a record to get to grips with. I could maybe do without the middle passage, from “Sky Burial” through “Delabole”, where Holden seems to let his synthesiser experimentations meander just that touch too far away from melody and rhythm, but the likes of “Renata” and “Gone Feral” and the title track are so good, so compelling, so exciting, that I’ll let his playfulness pass. Especially when it also results in tracks like “Some Respite”, which does indeed offer some respite after monolithic, physically tiring synth excursions, and “Self-Playing Schmaltz”, which has melodies played, Eno-like, by a “quantizied 3-LFO Chaotic System” rather than by a human being.
And then there is “Blackpool Late Eighties”, which is a gargantuan, crepuscular flight through trailing taillights and memories, huge rolling synthesiser arpeggios tapestried with beatific xylophone melodies and driven forward on linear, mechanised rhythms. It’s about the best thing I’ve heard all year.
James Holden seems to be, to steal an idea from Kurt Vonnegut, part of a musical karass that also contains Kieron Hebden and Dan Snaith and maybe Jon Hopkins and probably loads of other people too. It’s too disparate to call a ‘scene’, too diverse to call a ‘genre’. It amuses me that these four are all about the same age as me. I’m not sure why.