My first contact with James Holden was the infamous “the Sky Was Pink (Holden Remix)” around 2008. 4 Years after it was released.
Imagine you are drunk & high as fuck at an underground club party with 25 people dancing enthusiastically to this shitty 200x’ minimal music so you want to go home and feel lonely. Then this track appears. I could have dried my balls in the happiness I felt. I am sure I cried at some point. I was addicted to it. Around 2008/2009 (4 years after its release) nearly every techno-set in Germany played this track.
excerpt from 2004 “The Sky Was Pink” by Nathan Fake (James Holden Remix) (3:40…)
So yeah, It’s 2013 – here I am with a Holden – The Inheritors review (did James dropped the “James”?) and you have just made it through this fancy introduction.
What I love in “The Inheritors”
It’s organic. Yes, I use this word very often in my reviews, but why come up with new words for the same thing? I want to find out what criteria constitute great music and not how to write pretty reviews.
New timbres flow up surprisingly. There are tons of timbres, some may appear only for a few seconds. I like generosity. This music has life. It breathes. Did you ever watch leaves flutter on branches? They do it without quantization you might think, but in effect that comes down to how the mind perceives the leaves. Does our mind have quantization? Maybe, but I suppose it’s more fine-grained than 1/32. Our mind has something like a “dynamic high resolution” when it comes to perceiving and recognizing grooves and comparing musical forms. That is where the rhythms come into play.
Yes, the rhythms are amazing. They shift and rotate; also the notes within melodies. Sounds like some Euclidean Programming is going on. Or two separate rhythm/melody-lines with different pattern-lengths. I wish producers would use more non-linear style sequencing. Like a ship building itself while floating, rearranging in a meaningful way on the fly. Our mind instantly recognizes such qualities of structure in a positive way. Bach did this. That’s why dem fine women loved him. OR listen over here how Coltrane is folding one simple theme inside out. (Damn, dat impro…..!) You don’t have to be a jazz expert or anything to understand what he does. Just listen closely.
here you can hear some non-linear style sequencing excerpt from 2013 “The Illuminations” from The Inheritors by Holden (00:01…)
The timbres of the rhythm section are also great. Fluffy, puffy things going on. No overused plain Roland-Drummachines. It perfectly fits the rotating, swingy grooves. Like a steamboat. Look, so far we got two watercrafts up in this review!!
fluffy, puffy steamboat grooves excerpt from 2013 “Some Respite” from The Inheritors by Holden (00:00…)
I can also relate to some of the harmonies, see the examples above.
What I don’t love in “The Inheritors”
The main synth-timbres. God damn. Why oh why did James choose these timbres? OK, I understand you like krautrock, but… God damn, all this “shouting”. The synths often scream so loud I can barely hear the fluffy-groovy rhythm section. I can barely hear the tiny-organic flaps & plops which I’d enjoy very much. The screams overload all this beautiful modular-synth-details. It’s hard to fall into a state of trance. (I read in an interview that “getting people into trance/hypnosis” is one property James has in mind producing music.)
I am fiddling with the volume knob all the time while writing this review. I don’t want to disturb my roommates. I also can’t play it while chilling at home with my homies. You might say: “This album is just not for chilling at home with your homies, dude! It’s for the times you end up on MDMA in a huge stadium where Holden is headlining.” and I am d’accord with that, but that doesn’t happen very often.
this tracks illustrates screaming timbres between normal timbres very nicely excerpt from 2013 “Sky Burial” from The Inheritors by Holden (02:30…)
So my advice would be a more frequent use of a highcut-filter during those screamy parts. With some slow modulation on the cutoff-frequency and resonance of the filter one could achieve a “pleasant liquid singing” instead of “static, raspy screaming”.
I also cannot relate to all the harmonies. But that’s normal. The “feel of a harmony” is the most personal & mystic (=less well explained) phenomenon in music. Every harmony has it’s taste. Even in my favorite albums I dig only a few harmonic progressions (exception: “2001” by Dr. Dre, where I dig nearly all). Let’s take the most obvious harmony from “The Inheritors”:
excerpt from 2013 “Gone Feral” from The Inheritors by Holden (00:55…)
In this harmony I taste something apocalyptic. Some seriously bad shit happened. You lost a loved one, but you aren’t getting whiny about it! You are putting your shit together and keep on going. Shit is deep, but don’t give up and fight motherfucker! Of course my girl Anne might taste something different, but she was also instantly attracted to this harmony the most [from the album] without me saying anything. It was also the first single, so James & Gemma know what’s up as well. But why not making more ball/ovary-grabbing harmonies then? And I don’t mean necessarily with an apocalyptic taste. We know from Boards of Canada and Burial (e.g.) that one can make haunting “positive” and “melancholic” harmonies.
Holden does this also as we can hear in “Renata”:
nice beginning… excerpt from 2013 “Renata” from The Inheritors by Holden (00:00…)
…but then he modulates the melody-bearing synth-timbre into screaming square-wavy hell excerpt from 2013 “Renata” from The Inheritors by Holden (03:40…)
I still don’t know why. There are many ways of morphing a timbre into another timbre without fucking with square/triangle waves and their resonances/distortion. For all non-insiders: It’s literally the pointed edges in these wave-types that make a timbre raspy (if not filtered). Holden probably likes distorted, screaming e-guitars and I can’t stand em. One promotive factor might be a slight “over-compression”. A phenomenon in recent pop music is that it’s always too loud, so-called “loudness-war”. By which I mean that if you listen to it at reasonable volume you start to get headaches. The Pros call it “ear fatigue”. Some time ago I started to make this test with all my music: If I turn it up high, does something annoy me or make me wanna turn the volume down (e.g. screamy, caustic timbres)? See, our hearing is not linear – in the frequency-regions of speech there is a sensitive area:
Image taken from “Electronic Music and Sound Design: theory and practice with Max/MSP. Vol. 1” by Alessandro Cipriani & Maurizio Giri (2009)
Here the highlighted dip means you need less volume for the same intensity. I heard somewhere the evolutionary psychological explanation that this region was/is important for speech intelligibility, but recently Gordon Hempton suggested that it makes more sense that this frequency range developed from paying attention to birds singing. Yeah, also in the evolutionary psychological style – birds = water = food etc.
I am sure James knows all the loudness-war stuff, but he probably underestimated the tenderness of the sensitive region in our auditory perception or didn’t give a shit, because he wanted that it “rocks”. I can also offer an other angle of criticism on this issue: It is too “constant-screamy”. See 2nd half of “Renata”. It’s like one big screaming drone instead of some harsh nuances placed in a musical-meaningful way. An overdose of stiff abrasiveness.
In this vein the last negative thing to mention is the non-imaginative arrangement. Starting cuddly-minimalist building up to something dense. There are other possibilities. (James knows this weak spot also.)
Well, well… EL CONCLUSIO
Without all the screamy, loud and violent timbres, it would get 6.x/10. With some more amazing harmonies it would get 7.x/10. With a more virtuosic-avantgarde form/arrangement/mixing/timbres it would get 8-9.x/10.
At this point I want to say that I’ve read some interviews with James and I feel quite connected to his character. He seems like an honorable, blunt man. We both started with shitty tracks and we don’t make a secret about it. We both want to push music ahead, making new epic shit, e.g. James talks about a Max/Msp Patch he did, inspired by this essay on “The Nature and Perception of Fluctuations in Human Musical Rhythms”. This is exactly what I am talking about! Understanding consciousness and perception goes hand in hand with making good music.
I also like his & Gemma’s label Border Community. Till this moment “Bawsey” by Nathan Fake has been and is my ringtone for many years. So yes, this review is kind of biased by that.
excerpt from 2013 “Bawsey” from Drowning in a Sea of Love by Nathan Fake (00:00…)
The rating still might seem low, but you know my standard is utopian and I like “The Inheritors” nonetheless, even though I can’t visit it in most situations.
Like a Beautiful Lake in Tschernobyl, indeed.