I’d only bought this record on the Friday before our Tuesday meeting, but the half-dozen (occasionally broken / distracted) listens I’d managed to accumulate in that short time revealed this to be about the most ‘Nick’ record I could bring to record club. Indeed, perhaps the most ‘Nick’ record I could even imagine at this point in time; it feels like the square route (or the sum, or something – ask one of the mathematicians in the group what I mean) of much of my favourite music for the last few years.
So what is it? Well, four and a bit years ago (pre-kids), James Holden’s last record was one of my favourites of the year; massive, semi-improvised synthesiser explorations, with nods to jazz, trance, krautrock, and evocations of enormous natural British landscapes.
A particular standout track was “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, which felt like a weird, acid-soaked, pagan, forest-dwelling jazz recreation of “Atlas” by Battles. Percussion, synthesisers, slightly deranged brass; these are a few of my favourite things. The Animal Spirits feels like it takes that track as a direct jumping-off point, and runs enthusiastically down the (heavily wooded, less-travelled) path it pointed towards. Which is basically exactly what I wanted Holden to do after The Inheritors.
For this new record – only his third album in well over a decade of making music – James Holden has put together a band with whom he’s recorded a number of live (no overdubs, I gather), semi-improvised synth + drums + brass + percussion (+ occasional wordless, chanting vocals) jams. This makes his 2006 debut (The Idiots Are Winning, a title which gets more and more prophetic / bathetic with every disquieting event in global politics), a one-man-in-his-bedroom techno album which took the beatific, widescreen trance of his early singles and remixes and edited it until it teetered on the edge of collapse, an outlier in his discography. To go from control-freakish, micro-edited techno experiments to what’s essentially live, improvised kraut-jazz-prog-rock, is quite a move in only three albums. When you consider that his first single was released in 1999, when he was just 20, it’s not actually that rapid an evolution, but still.
At times The Animal Spirits is a very heavy record; it could almost be hard rock or even full-on metal at times, but played with a very different set of instruments. At 9 tracks over 45-ish minutes, it’s considerably easier to consume than The Inheritors, which has 15 tracks and lasts about half an hour longer. The Animal Spirits feels focussed, lean, and precise, even as the music on it is raging, exploratory, and verging on hysteria. In many ways it fits very neatly as a wilder, less manicured partner to Floating Points’ material released this year: the progrock synth explorations of Reflections: Mojave Desert, and the strung-out, meticulous, almost-back-to-the-dancefloor pseudo-dance of “Ratio”.
It sounds fabulous; the synths are the main attraction, and the mix gives you full access to their warmth, buzz, groove, and melody. I’ve seen a couple of people suggest that the drums are too low in the mix, and compared to the kind of pumping, side-chained beats of Holden’s origins in dance music they certainly sound very different, but they’ve got the ragged crispness of a live kit performance, and all the excitement that goes along with that. If you want them louder, just turn it up; the mix and performances reward, even demand, that volume. The brass – cornet and saxophone – works both melodiously and chaotically depending on the track. On more than one occasion there’s a flute or a recorder, and a massive whiff of Canterbury hippy, which could put you off if the whole thing wasn’t so damn compelling. It draws from Morroccan gnawa music, ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs and rhythms, and you can feel that it’s striving for something limbic, something sublime, not quite secular but… agnostic, and yearning.
In many ways it fulfils the promise I first heard in Caribou’s Up In Flames album way back in 2003, fusing electronic experiments with jazz, rock, dance, and more in order to find the head-spinning psychedelic space that they can all inhabit when they cut loose. There are a lot of people working in this milieu now, a karass (to again use Kurt Vonnegut’s neologism for a group of people with shared interests who are somehow spiritually bound together) including Floating Points, Four Tet, Caribou, Nicolas Jaar, the Polar Bear / Melt Yourself Down / Sons of Kemet British jazz cohort, Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott (obviously, as people signed to his label Border Community), The Invisible, and probably (hopefully?) some others I’ve yet to discover, too. It might just be the best record that any of them have released thus far; ask me again in a few months.