- by charles filtness Rating: Release Date: Label:
James Holden has been releasing music since the early 2000s. His initial success as a Trance producer and DJ was huge and included being responsible for a series of high profile remixes for the likes of Britney Spears and Madonna. More recently his output has been less informed by the dance floor and more exploratory in nature.
Last year’s well-received album ‘The Animal Spirits’ built on the template of his excellent 2015 album ‘The Inheritors’ which was recorded using amongst other things a modular synthesizer he built himself. The latest LP continued the experimentation and was recorded in collaboration with an improvisational ensemble, also named ‘The Animal Spirits’.
Tonight, for this their last show of the year The Animal Spirits are a 4 piece. Alongside James, there is Tom Page (drums), Lascelle Gordon (percussion), Marcus Hamblett (cornet) and Liza Bec (clarinet, bass recorder, and saxophone). They play the Royal Exchange, an intriguing venue choice given its design. Termed ‘in the round’ the audience are seated on 3 levels circularly around a central performance space. This is well suited to theatre and comedy but does require the performers to have an increased degree of movement to ensure all sections of the audience receive a good view. James sits cross-legged on a slightly elevated stage platform with his synth, laptop, and other equipment in front of him. The band forms a loose circle away beyond him. It’s a set up I like, certainly, this feels alternative, like a happening I imagine. But my reservations are confirmed, I literally cannot see a thing Liza and Marcus are doing as they have their backs to me. No matter, it’s all about the music right?
The gig starts with James using a distortion of his vocal as the others gradually combine to create a fairly loose, almost chaotic freeform jam. It feels like the most appropriate response to this sort of thing would be jumping up and down, freaking out. Venue and personality restrictions thankfully ensure no one is witness to that tonight. From this point on the playing coalesces into something far more complimentary, rehearsed even. It’s a thoroughly involving gig in which James’ synth leads the performance. He creates a diverse form of electronica; drones, bleeps, basslines, sometimes glitchy, twinkly, even ambient. These eminently danceable tunes are the base, always soon to be accompanied by the drums and percussion.
The drumming is fantastic, at times sounding like a continuing looped drum break on a DJ shadow record or similar. There isn't much space or sparsity within the playing, this isn't free-jazz style drums. The percussion is also fundamental, adding detail to the performance. Liza and Marcus play on almost every track, sitting out on a couple only. Most often they join once the drum and synth pattern has been established, their playing then taking us somewhere further. The whole set and combination of instruments work incredibly well, probably even more successfully than the record. I’ve read reviews describing the sound of the new record as ‘folk-trance’. I'm not sure, there are elements of world music, breakbeat, jazz but overall I find it more tribal sounding tonight. It is deeply rhythmical, an affecting performance, human, with warmth. But I don't feel as though I'm ever truly caught up in the performance, there are no goosebump moments.
Maybe that's partly to do with where I'm sat. I find not being able to see everyone on stage fully a real distraction. Enjoying a gig is also about witnessing the performers as well as hearing the music and being a part of the audience. This seated gig definitely has plenty of people head nodding along but possibly it would have been better to be on our feet. After an hour or so of the 90-minute set, I move from the stalls to the balcony. It’s a good decision, a revelation even, I can now see everyone play and for the first time appreciate the full array of percussion Lascelle has at his disposal. I spend the rest of the show grinning and foot tapping along whilst the girl in front of me bounces up and down in her seat. It’s impossible not to be taken along by the enthusiasm of others. By the close James explains he's not really into pretend encores. We’re just told this is the last song before they play the ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’ from The Inheritors LP. It's a great end to a great gig. Quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.