Carved from the air
It’s weird to think, as “Rannoch Dawn” frays and fries itself in your ears, that in some ways this is James Holden’s first real album. Weird because The Inheritors is, in all its shaggy glory, such an assured and accomplished piece of work (and, once you dig into Holden’s methodology, accomplished in a way you’re not likely to see in novices); weird because he’s been making music since the end of the last century, and even if Holden is working a field that’s less and less organized around the album, that’s still a long time; weird because The Inheritors works so well as an album that it’s a bit boggling that this is his first crack at it. And yes, weird because technically The Idiots Are Winning, from 2006, was Holden’s first album. But even now Holden refers to that release as an EP that got out of control, just some songs he wrote at the time, not something conceived of as an album, whereas The Inheritors is the product of an artist who talks about wanting it to be “a whole new world, a mythology, complete…an old-fashioned idealistic version of what an album is.”
Now, artists talk like that all the time, and normally it’s best left in the press release. But what makes this massive album (in sound, in effect, in sprawl; 15 tracks in 75 minutes) so striking is that for once the product lives up to the intention. One of the reasons it’s taken so long for Holden to make this record is simply that he’s been so busy as a DJ and the head of his own label that studio time has been hard to come by, but in the meantime he’s been steeping himself in folk violin pieces, Bartok, pentatonic folk scales, and the “liberated ritual space” of the club. Then he went ahead and built the tools he needed for The Inheritors, programs creating analogue/digital hybrids, and recorded these tracks in first takes, with no overdubs. But, again, you can come to this album cold, knowing nothing of Holden’s process, influences, or intentions, and The Inheritors still sounds and feels like the kind of English pagan epic he was trying to create. The background can add layers to your appreciation of the music, but it’s the music itself that is going to create the appreciation in the first place. The immediate impact of these songs is visceral, sometimes almost abrasively so; all the context in the world can’t provide that immediate grip if the music itself doesn’t have it.
Coming off years of intense, in-demand DJing, you might think that Holden would make a fairly straightforward dance record; instead, as he says in an interview, “The LP was meant to be like an alternate universe where the sprawling inventive madness of the ‘60s and ‘70s hadn’t been out-evolved by punchier, more functional and direct music—a sort of utopia for the non-competitive idea.” There are certainly tracks and passages here that could be danced to, but much of The Inheritors is altogether more atavistic; the beginning of “Sky Burial” feels like it’s dragging something up a hill, for example. Much of what’s here does feel like ritual music, and only some rituals involve dancing. For every moment like the galumphing squall of “The Caterpillar’s Intervention” or “Gone Feral”‘s loping beat that makes you want to move, there’s another like the densely psychedelic “||: A Circle Inside A Circle Inside :||” or the wide-open skies of “Blackpool Late Eighties” that seems to demand some other form of contemplation. Holden moves over a range of moods and reactions with ease, knowing that the only way such a long album works is if you carefully craft the journey it’s taking. On The Inheritors Holden guides us from mood to mood, atmosphere to atmosphere, smoothly and naturally; at every stop the album is immediately involving, so even an hour in it hasn’t succumbed to the fatigue that normal plagues efforts of this length.
While the bespoke sounds and varied structures here often do sound like nothing else out there, Holden does throw in some more familiar landmarks to help us get our bearing; dense, inventive grooves influenced by krautrock here, some smeared, sunstroked Boards of Canada ambience there, even something closer to the previous, more explicitly dance-floor-oriented work on “Renata”. But the result still feels like entirely his own; nobody else is really making songs like the muted, softly throbbing “Inter-City 125” or the fractured, circular grind of the title track right now, let alone putting both on an album that makes them seem like natural counterpoints. Crafting your own world, with its own rules and mores and aesthetics, isn’t necessary to make a great album. But if you can manage to pull it off, if the record seems like the only music the listener needs while it’s playing, that’s certainly enough to qualify as one. For such a dense, sprawling, heady piece of music, The Inheritors has a surprisingly light touch to it, even a playfulness, that shows just how in control of his tools (including the album form) James Holden is. If this is what happens when he sets out to conceive an album, we should all hope he makes another one soon.