The press release accompanying James Holden’s long-waited sophomore record, The Inheritors, is hyperbolic to say the least. It proclaims the 34-year old Devon born man as an “unparalleled” producer who has “woven a rich aural tapestry” with this album and that “nobody is making electronic music as explorative” as Holden – and that’s just the opening paragraph. Get past the PR machine, and you find that while The Inheritors isn’t the pinnacle avant-garde electronic music it’s hailed as, it’s a damn fine collection of songs.
Interestingly, the word that best describes what Holden does – transforms – only appears at the end of the release, as a last-minute thought: “striking a delicate balance between weighty tome and transformative trip.” That said, it probably explains why Holden named his record after the William Golding novel. The Inheritors find Holden attempting to make an electronic record as far removed from popular music circa 2013 as possible – in other words, an honest electronic record. Much like the book, Holden’s songs are, on the surface, simple and sparse in nature, but creep up on you before you take notice. ‘Delabole,’ for example, finds him blotting various sonic elements over a melody established early on that’s reminiscent of the Zelda dungeon music. Slowly, it gets buried under the increasingly overcrowded production. Before you realize it, the hypnotizing melody has blended into the restless haze you’re encircled by.
This is a trick that Holden plays on the listener throughout the album; it’s quite an effective one, at that. ‘Seven Stars’ lulls you in with a pair of lazily stumbling synths while a storm of fizzling white noise sneaks up from the sides and engulfs the listener. Then it snatches the song – and you – away into the night as it ends abruptly. All of this in under two minutes, to boot. He reverses this formula for ‘The Illuminations’ and ‘Rannoch Dawn.’ The former starts out with bright-sky synths bubbling about, then mid-way through, the song’s glow wanders into an aural fog before emerging brighter than before. It isn’t that luminous at the outset, but it feels like it was. The latter begins paranoid and eerie, slowly morphing into industrial EDM as minimalist percussion slithers over the horizon. The rave-built second half of the track compels your brain into double-think. The deception, though, lies not in juxtaposition, but in slight-of-hand – the slow build of Holden’s production is at times so subtle that he can bend reality to his will.
Yet, knowing the trick doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the initial listen. Instead, repeated spins allow you to focus on the mature songwriting on display. It may appear that Holden uses a tactic akin to a cheap twist ending in order to keep your attention, but that misses the point. A great mid-song transformation, like a plot twist properly employed, forces the listener to reevaluate a song from a different perspective. You’re essentially asking, “Is this worth hearing if I know what’s coming?” For The Inheritors, the answer is “Yes.” You see, the key isn’t that he twisted the plot, but how he did it.