The release of James Holden’s long-anticipated second album The Inheritors in the summer of 2013 kicked off a bold new phase in the enduring British electronic guru’s musical career. An epic 75 minute long English pagan saga, the immersive and idiosyncratic alternative electronic universe of The Inheritors was the product of Holden’s late night studio jams on his modular synthesizer and custom hybrid analogue- digital machines. But with a recording process that had become so focused around the capturing of these private in-the-moment live performances, it was not long before the public act of travelling the world playing other people’s records as part of Holden’s international DJ career of over ten years standing began to feel increasingly out of step with his most recent studio explorations. The time had come to take the plunge with a live show all of his very own.
London-born jazz-trained drummer Tom Page (of brotherly synth-and-drum improv duo Rocketnumbernine) was Holden’s first recruit, joining Holden and a portable incarnation of his modular synth in an improvised reimagining of tracks from The Inheritors, in answer to an impossible-to-turn-down invitation from Thom Yorke to support his Atoms For Peace supergroup on their North American arena tour in the Autumn of 2013. Then once back home on the European festival circuit, the improvisational flourishes of French saxophonist Etienne Jaumet (Zombie Zombie) – whose free-sax freak-out adorns Inheritors highlight The Caterpillar’s Intervention – were a welcome occasional addition to the newly-formed synth-and-drum duo’s continuing live adventures.
By the time of the recording sessions for his third album The Animal Spirits during the hot and sticky summer of 2016, the band of fellow travellers squeezed into Holden’s London studio Sacred Walls now numbers six. The gentle English cornet of Marcus Hamblett (Bear’s Den, Laura Marling), the free-wheeling recorder vocalizations of Liza Bec and the seemingly bottomless bag of tricks of cosmic percussionist Lascelle Gordon complete the line-up of Holden’s fantasy “spiritual jazz band playing folk / trance music”, adding an extra expressive depth to his latest spiralling synth offerings. But here it is the star soloist of the ever-strident synth that sits front and centre, as Holden embraces his new-found role as band leader to explore the bountiful improvisational permutations of his new set of synth-led folk-trance standards.
All-rounder Holden’s creative control over the Animal Spirits project is absolute, from building his own bespoke improvisation-ready synth and software, writing the melodic backbone of each track and directing his players, to self-recording, self-mixing and eventually also self-releasing the finished collection on his own Border Community imprint in late 2017. But in an era when so much electronic music is either painstakingly assembled entirely in a computer, or played back from one in the name of an “on rails” live show, for Holden, the goal of a genuinely live electronic performance is key. Gathering together “everyone in the same room at the same time” in a bid to capture what he calls the unfakeable “psychic communication” of a group performance, every minute of The Animal Spirits actually happened in a moment, recorded live in one room together in single takes, no overdubs, no edits, in accordance with Holden’s own self-imposed dogma. And crucially, Holden’s emphatic synth figures remain inextricably bound to drummer Tom Page’s expressive jazz flow in a fluid, dynamic dance care of a piece of self-coded mathematically-modelled interactive drummer-following software which keeps pace with the almost imperceptible – yet unmistakably human – micro-errors in timing that lend live drums their natural magickal groove. Thus Page is liberated from the tyranny of the click track which usually dominates any attempt to integrate real drums with live electronic performance, and a new organic symbiotic relationship between human and machine is born.
What has emerged out of these sessions is a genre-blending new form of universal music that feels inherently fluid and alive, its influences as all-encompassing as they are unexpected, from the whirling recorder solos of the folk-tinged Spinning Dance via the hypnotic elastic polyrhythms of Pass Through The Fire (clearly touched by Holden’s 2014 collaboration with Moroccan legend of Gnawa music, the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinia) to the easy Ethio-Jazz groove of surprising requiem Go Gladly Into The Earth. The range covered is extraordinary, from the core synth-and-drum partnership of Holden & Page feeling out uplifting Balearic jaunt Each Moment Like The First in one of their earliest album rehearsals right up to
the full six-person assemblage of the raucous Thunder Moon Gathering. A wild ride that successfully unites the propulsive melodic vigour of modular synthesis with an unlikely supporting cast of brass, wind and live percussion, the expansive transformative psychedelic journey of The Animal Spirits is certainly eternal outsider Holden’s most ambitious work to date – but surely also his most direct and accessible.
This may all seem a long way from 1999’s exuberant teenage trance hit Horizons, the 12” single which first thrust the classically-trained 19 year old James Holden onto the global dance music scene thanks to an early intervention from Sony Music, opening up an intensive course of remixing (from Madonna and Britney Spears to Radiohead and Depeche Mode), producing and DJing in place of the conventional graduate career path. But when viewed chronologically, a clear progression can be traced from the youthful abandon of the naïve harmonics of his debut release through to the no-less-melodious mathematically-determined technological experiments of the modern day. It was with the formation of his own Border Community record label in 2003 that Holden really began to assert his singular vision, unleashing a bonafide dancefloor classic with his own unstoppable remix of Nathan Fake’s The Sky Was Pink (2004) before flexing his album muscles with his milestone debut The Idiots Are Winning in 2006. (“Holden is operating in a different league”, proclaimed Q Magazine, presciently.) But it would ultimately take a further seven years of wandering in the between-albums desert – squeezed between an intensive schedule of weekly DJ excursions – before the grand statement comeback of The Inheritors was finally ready to let loose upon the world, kick-starting Holden’s eventual transformation into the fully-fledged live performer we see today.
Born out of of the sheer unbridled joy of live performance, Holden’s third artist album The Animal Spirits is the momentous culmination of this transformation, as the former trailblazer of the early noughties computer music revolution is dramatically reborn as live musician and band leader. In embracing his new found knowledge of Morocco’s Gnawa trance tradition and repackaging the brash tones of pure trance into the accommodating spiritual jazz band format, The Animal Spirits can even be viewed as a kind of coming to terms with Holden’s early trance past, only now his focus is on the parallel evolutions of folk traditions the world over and their hypnotic effects on the brain, rather than the narrow formulaic European musical genre. This one-time international DJ has now officially hung up his headphones to turn his attention to setting a new standard for interconnected live electronic performance, as The Animal Spirits collective spread their message of musical unity across the world. And now we are through the looking glass into a new realm of inherently organic live electronic musical performance, there can be no going back to the prison of the rigid world of computer beats. This one-time proudly lonesome bedroom producer looks intent on keeping live collaborative performance at the centre of his music-making for the foreseeable future.