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James Holden
Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities Bernie Brooks , March 31st, 2023 07:45

James Holden's latest is a wild combination of memories, ideas, and influences, says Bernie Brooks

I remember driving north through Michigan farmland on my way up to school, the sun full in the sky, a small dust devil, dancing in place, almost playful. A rare sight here, I pulled over to watch the whirlwind spin and spin in the dry field, debris and dirt whirling around its cylindrical body. It spun until it didn’t anymore, and then it ceased to exist.

Spinning and spinning and spinning.

Intrusive and incessant, those are the words that litter my mind whenever I try to describe James Holden’s work. The phrase is always the same. It makes sense – to me, at least. There is an unmistakable centripetal force to his compositions, a swirling sort of motion. Listening to his latest LP, Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities, I’m reminded of that dust devil. Not only was its existence contingent on its spinning, it was its spinning. No spinning, no dust devil. Somehow, this seems like an apt metaphor for the way James Holden composes and plays music. No swirling sort of motion, no James Holden.

Holden is one of those rarified artists who can really only be compared to themselves. Though there were records in between and since, his last two ‘proper’ LPs, The Inheritors and The Animal Spirits, are monumental landmarks on both the post rave and modular synth landscapes. The Inheritors is a riotously pagan thing, greyscale, almost feral; The Animal Spirits is a deeply psychedelic descendent of spiritual jazz and renegade synthesists past – it’s pagan as hell, too, but brighter, in Technicolor. On both, there are these odd, almost Renaissance Faire undertones. Like I said, Holden is singular. And on those two records, dude was unstuck in time working some kind of otherworldly folk magic.

Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities, on the other hand, trades in something else. While no less worthy or beautiful in its way, it is perhaps more obviously beholden to linear timelines and histories, however personal. Holden has called it both “a dream of a rave” and “a dialogue with [his] teenage self.” Which I think says a lot, maybe all you need. There’s an element of nostalgia at play here, but no corresponding retrograde thinking. Each track is inevitably a wild combination of memories, ideas, and influences – midi-fied sacred harp singers clash with squiggly synthesis, fiddle collides with the most absurd funk bass. Meanwhile, the spectre of prog is everywhere and the club is never far away. Amazingly, it all works.

When we talk about nostalgia in art we’re usually talking about two different things – art that is attempting to be nostalgic and art that inspires nostalgia (whether intentional or not). An artwork can be one or the other or both, but if your artwork is the former it better damn well be the latter. Holden’s is practically a time machine, churning up the past.

Spinning and spinning and spinning.

On 2 July 1997 Men In Black was released in the United States. Though I could drive, I rode my bike to a matinee showing. Right near the end, just as the giant bug was about to burst out of its Vincent D’Onofrio skin suit the screen went black. At the same time, throughout Metro Detroit, tornadoes were forming. Thirteen were spotted that day – a record – including the last one to touch down in the city proper. I didn’t see any, though. I didn’t see the end of Men In Black, either. I was evacuated after waiting in line for a free pass to a future showing. I rode my bike home, but I wasn’t panicked. After my initial wariness passed, I felt weirdly peaceful under the surprisingly calm green sky. A sense of reverence, too, and a oneness.

I’m listening to ‘Common Land’ and I’m hearing that same oneness as Chris Duffin’s sax mingles with birdsong and the idea of club synths. Holden’s dream raves are outdoors, in fields. There’s no separating fauna from the four-four. Toes in the grass, clouds overhead. Nature is a venue is a spectator is an untamable, unruly participant. As it always is – whether you’re at a club or watching Men In Black. Still, there are few artists that acknowledge this truth as deftly as Holden, whose work is so comfortably rooted in the notion. To me it lends the album (all his albums, really) a sort of beauty and sensitivity, even when at its most challenging or strange. It gives the whole thing a liveliness, too. The tracks here often feel more channeled than composed. It’s hard to imagine them in parts. They’re more like organisms, ecosystems, weather systems.

Spinning and spinning and spinning.

There were a lot of tornado warnings when I was a kid. A couple of times a year the sound of the outdoors would change and the sky would go strange. A siren would sound or the radio would screech and my mom and dad and sister and I would clamber down into the basement. We’d take the radio and some board games and sit on a blanket next to the washing machine. Despite the unpredictability and seriousness of the situation, I don’t remember being afraid or feeling unsafe. Instead, I remember something akin to excitement and what in retrospect must have been an overwhelming sense of wonder. Listening to Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities calls that to mind.