Modern Nature
Photo: James Sharp / PIAS

Modern Nature’s ‘No Fixed Point in Space’ Doesn’t Achieve Lift-Off

When it comes to the late Mark Hollis’ seminal work, Modern Nature’s No Fixed Point in Space crosses the line between inspired tribute and pale imitation.

No Fixed Point In Space
Modern Nature
Bella Union
29 September 2023

“It feels like time to make something that no one has heard before,” Jack Cooper has said about No Fixed Point in Space, the third album from his British indie folk collective Modern Nature. This is quite ironic because No Fixed Point in Space owes its sound almost entirely to several records that many people have heard over the past few decades.

Before saying more about Modern Nature, it’s first necessary to discuss another band altogether. Talk Talk began in the early 1980s as a rather traditional British synthpop band. Their leader, the mercurial Mark Hollis, gradually took them in more expansive, experimental directions. Commercially unsuccessful at the time, the final two Talk Talk LPs, Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991), are now recognized as masterpieces, intricate, semi-improvised amalgamations of pop, folk, new age, and jazz, among many others. These two albums truly sounded like nothing that had come before them under the guise of pop or any other categorization.

Hollis’ self-titled 1998 solo album offered a more minimal refinement of the late-period Talk Talk sound, and this trifecta has influenced countless bands and artists ever since. Hollis’ spirit certainly can be heard in the music of Radiohead and Elbow, and everyone from Catherine Wheel to Slowdive has paid tribute to his singular sound.

Cooper and Modern Nature have been Hollis acolytes as well, as evidenced by the hushed, pensive moments on their previous two albums and EP. No Fixed Point in Space replaces reverence and influence with full-on imitation. From the opening drone and swelling minor-chord strings of “Tonic” to the final melancholic tones and distant percussion of “Ensō”, the record doesn’t just recall Hollis’ seminal works; it almost reenacts them.

Modern Nature’s previous LPs contained pieces of more straightforward folk, indie rock, and even terse Krautrock rhythms; No Fixed Point In Space is wholly immersed in careful, delicate reverie. One could argue Cooper leans more toward folk sounds than Hollis did and away from jazz and new age, but these variations are relatively minor. If these seven lengthy tracks were presented as “lost” Hollis compositions from the early 1990s, no one could be faulted for taking the bait.

However, closer listening to No Fixed Point in Space reveals a couple of crucial deviation points. While not shunning dissonance, Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, and Mark Hollis were dynamic and wholly beautiful, tempering noise with melody, shade with light, and closeness with breathing room. No Fixed Point in Space tends to drone on continuously, with stringed instruments providing occasional swells of volume and intensity. Furthermore, several tracks feature odd percussive effects that are purely grating. In “Tonic”, it’s a brushed snare, tap-tap-tapping as if to distract the listener. In “Murmuration” and “Sun”, it’s a ride cymbal brought too high in the mix. Most irksome of all is the scraping, rattling sound on “Orange”, giving the impression someone was sorting through sea shells while the tape rolled.

Most crucially, Hollis’ defining music was borne of deeply personal experiences and feelings. Personal tragedy, inner turmoil, and religious conviction inspired his songs and lyrics, which made for an intimate emotional connection even when the music seemed to keep the listener at arm’s length. Cooper has claimed No Fixed Point in Space was inspired by nature. While his sparse, half-murmured vocals are pleasant enough, it is challenging to glean a message or even discern what he is saying. Backing vocals by veteran guest Julie Tippetts, née Driscoll, are historically significant but otherwise lack impact.

Cooper and his backing musicians leave an impression in a few tracks, if barely. “Tapestry” has a twisting, almost subliminal acoustic bassline and pitter-patter percussion, though these are eventually overwhelmed by an awkward violin near-melody. “Cascade” holds together quite well, Cooper singing of “sweetness breaking” among nudging pulses of strings. But these points of interest are mere oases in the album’s greater morass.

The emulative nature of No Fixed Point in Space makes for another bit of irony. Despite its open orchestration and more experimental bent, it is Modern Nature’s least interesting release.

RATING 4 / 10