Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Seven years after the release of his first album ‘The Idiots Are Winning’ and 14 years since his first single, James Holden has returned with ‘The Inheritors’, a long, sprawling record that effortlessly distils all of his obsessions into one glorious whole.
One suspects that the large stopgap between albums was as much a technical one as an artistic one. Holden uses a combination of unwieldy instruments across the record – modular synthesizers, complex digital programming languages like Max/MSP, live recordings to analogue formats (old cassettes, reel-to-reels) – all of which took a few years to master. It’s essential that he did this, because it’s these instruments, and Holden’s use of these instruments, that give the album its unique character. The sounds are rough-edged and messy, the arrangements unpredictable without being chaotic, and each track is full of odd little quirks that reveal themselves on repeat listens – sometimes it’s Holden hitting the keys slightly out of time, sometimes it’s a bleep crunching over at a random moment, sometimes it’s a beat drifting off the grid. These ticks may be small, but they add perceptible changes in the way that the music is felt and add to an overall sense of imperfection that Holden clearly admires.
Crucially, none of these sounds seem particularly “electronic”. A lot of this is due to the fact that Holden eschews any established conventions of electronic and dance genres – the clubbiest track on the record is Blackpool Late Eighties, but despite its kicks-and-hi-hats structure it only has a passing resemblance to techno, with a freewheeling rhythm and a droning non-melody that’s more likely to be heard on a Loop record than anything in the Beatport Top 10. It’s a big step up from anything he’s done before, which even at its most psychedelic (such as his 2006 masterpiece Idiot) still seemed to have the dancefloor in mind.
If ‘The Inheritors’ owes itself to any musical lineage it’s much closer to krautrock artists (opening track Rannoch Dawn is carried by a motorik groove, Delabole is almost like Cluster) and the sort of earthly, pagan folk explored most prominently on Magnet’s soundtrack to The Wicker Man (the hollow, steady drum march and bagpiping organs of Sky Burial are undeniably ritualistic). These are only spiritual connections though – Holden’s sound is his own throughout, never resorting to the sort of tired kraut/psych/folk pastiches that many inferior bands are happy to mine.
Whilst ‘The Inheritors’ does lag in its midsection, this isn’t exactly to its detriment. Holden himself has admitted that he wanted to create a sprawling record, one that “required a map” to navigate. It’s an appropriate turn of phrase – listening to the album is like going on an expedition in the Highlands, traversing the various peaks and gradients and being in awe of the sights that surround it. When you reach the highest points, it’s breathtaking: previous singles Renata and Gone Feral still sound astounding after repeat listens, whilst the gloomy and twangy Seven Stars is without doubt one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear this year.