Holy Other Holy OtherHeld
There's music that's easy to catch and have stick in your memory, and then there's music that slips through your fingers like liquid or steam. A word of advice: don't try to get into “Held” by listening to it superficially, or playing it in the background as if it were a pretty piece of furniture, because even though it's built on ambient, its composition isn't just vaporous, it can be captured, but only if it gets your full, undivided attention. At first listening, the first full-length by the enigmatic (and, as word has it, androgynous) Holy Other after the prodigious EP that he made his debut on Tri Angle with, “With U” (2011), seems like a piece of silk tenderly embracing you, but when you pay really close attention, you'll discover new things every time you hear it. Many things. Bass lines with different densities, voices modulated (tuned) at very different pitch levels, beats that stealthily enter and leave again, sibylline ripples in the curves of the ambient textures. If you hear it without really listening, the music just goes and doesn't come back, like water under a bridge. If you pay attention intermittently, you'll see different parts of the river go by. It's only when you listen to it with great care, holding your breath, that maybe, if you're lucky, you'll understand the river. “Held” is water.
On “With U”, Holy Other's formula was as fascinating as it was logical: take the characteristics of early Burial (with sharp, high-pitched voices and muffled beats) and give them an R&B varnish, stressing the sugary textures rather than the broken beats which, in Burial’s case, came from garage and drum'n'bass. Now that Holy Other has perfected his technique, the influence of the jewel in Hyperdub's crown has faded somewhat, and he's managed to dive (with a scuba suit and an oxygen tank) into unknown territory. Not only because of the layers of deep blue or sea-green sounds, but because of the kind of suspension the sound itself suggests: floating in open sea, entering and exiting the water, with the subsequent reflections, optical variations and adaptations. Tracks like “Tense Past” and “Impouring” move like amphibious creatures between a dense, submerged, clean texture, and one that is lighter, airier, and less asphyxiating. If there's an obvious obsession with water on Tri Angle (Clams Casino's “Rainforest”, the duo Water Borders and, of course, the also fluvial “Wander/Wonder” by Balam Acab), Holy Other comes to expand it, adding, on one album, the liquid, the evaporated, and, at times, the mercurial ( “Love Some1”, on which the bass becomes denser and immobilised, and “U Now”, on which the sighing vocals become deeper).
What I want to say is that Holy Other isn't something you listen to like any other ambient record, careless sometimes, because you know things will be repeated and that you can momentarily be distracted without losing track of it. Nor is it like a pop record, with melodies and proper songs. It's somewhere in between, in unexplored territory where everything happens in highly concentrated fashion (there are two-minute tracks that are more substantial than entire nebulous ambient records), and where there is no buoy to hold on to: the voices, because there are no melodies or words, just voices, are like the wind blowing. “(W)here” opens the album tensely, a plunge followed by a pitch to get some air and go back down to explore the rocky and coral-like bottom of the sea, and “Impouring” sounds like Burial using fragments of a diamond-like Annie Lennox song, to give his pieces an 80s art-pop feel. Towards the end, things remain as they are, but changing, qualifying: “In Difference” sounds desolate, but it holds you in a warm embrace; “Past Tension” is short, but contains some well-perfumed R&B; “Held” varies the rhythms and finishes calmly, with the androgynous voice muffled; and “Nothing Here” advances towards silence, in a conclusion that reduces the entire album to poetry.
“Held” lacks the surprise factor of last year's 12”, like Balam Acab's debut LP, which demanded a new start, without any previous knowledge, in order to fully appreciate the music in all of its purity. Maybe it sounds cleaner than the early tracks (with better, more professional, more careful production), but this neatness doesn't affect any of its virtues: lyricism, evanescence, beauty reduced to a single, magical second, warmth and depth. In this world where everything has to move fast and the average attention deficit is high, an album like this will be misunderstood by many people, even rejected as something really important. But if you're patient, willing to stand still for a second, breathe, take the plunge and hold on down there for as long as you can, you will be able to admire its interior. Everything is beautiful and singular in its interior, almost unreal because of the distorted light, a secret place where you can find refuge.