There may have been no more meteoric rise in millennial electronic music than that of British producer James Holden, who at the tender age of 19 recorded the single “Horizons/ Pacific” using free musical software Buzz that became an instant hit in the progressive trance scene and soon went on to be one of 1999’s defining singles. Come the 21st century, twentysomething Holden soon found himself in demand, remixing the likes of New Order and Depeche Mode, Britney Spears and Madonna herself, living the dream. “I was thrown into this world I knew nothing about and judged on their grounds, even though I didn’t share those values,” Holden said to me from his studio in London. “I was signed to some dick’s label and perceived as a cash cow and I had a terrible experience with the music industry.”
So at the peak of his tranced-out powers (his epic Nathan Fake remix was one of 2004’s highlights and his deconstruction of Madonna’s “Get Together” was similarly bold), Holden dropped out. When he did re-emerge, it was with his own Border Community imprint, revealing a darker, more minimal and diverse sound palette on his 2006 debut album, The Idiots Are Winning. It’s taken him seven years to follow it up, and this month sees the release of James Holden’s woozy, woolly and adventurous album The Inheritors. “The Inheritors I envisioned as this flowing, amorphous thing. They’re very basic tracks, tending to two-three parts and a rhythm and that’s it, they just dance around each other for the duration,” Holden explained. “I don’t really like music to have too many frilly edges or extraneous details. The melodies and beats are just the skeleton; the squeaks, digressions, the little breaking bits, how it roars and growls, that’s the important bit for me. I wanted it all working towards this psychedelic peak.”
He cites the influence of Cluster and krautrock as well as Bonnie “Prince” Billy with opening up the parameters of his music. “I didn’t have enough friends who played music to form a band, but I wanted to make music like Mogwai,” he said, admitting he had seen the deafening Glaswegian rock band an “embarrassing” number of times over the years. “I wanted something that had that sort of psychedelic intensity to it.” Sounds not native to dance music often crop up. That could be a sawed cello working in tandem with the clopping train chug on “Rannoch Dawn.” And amid the analog amoeba noise of “The Caterpillar’s Intervention” emerge spores of free jazz horns and the chimes of a prayer bowl.
And while The Inheritors took seven years to realize, Holden swears that when he wasn’t busy touring the globe as a DJ and running the label, the process itself went rather quick. “I developed this idea of having my modular synths wired into the computer, which corrupted stuff,” he said of the process. “You have to catch while it works, you can’t go away and work on it another day.” Control voltage components such as modular synths don’t readily ‘talk’ to modern computers, leading to chaos entering into the system: “It’s about making them fight. When you introduce feedback, things spiral out of control, making something unstable so that the performance could be exciting. I can almost play it, almost control it, but not quite.”
Once renown for sculpting these anthemic, stratospheric tracks, now Holden is content to meander on terra firam and take us far off the beaten path, into some strange woodlands. The album becomes revelatory on a headphone stroll, propulsive but never intrusive. At times, the beats fall away completely, as if to reveal a previously unglimpsed vista. There’s a transparency to much of The Inheritors, which led my colleague Philip Sherburne to equivocate the listening experience with John Cage’s paradigm-shifting “4’33””. Was such lucidity and open-endedness part of his intent for the album? “I remember records being really important in how it associates itself with your life and experiences,” Holden said in reply. “In a way, that’s my naïve dream, to make a record that embeds itself in peoples’ existence for a little while and gets life superimposed on top of it.”
The Inheritors is out via Border Community.