If ever there was a time when the World needed uplifting and some positivity, leaving 2020 behind us and moving into 2021 was it. What with the difficulties, unhappiness and worry caused by the global pandemic thrust upon us all by Covid-19, and many uncertainties that the United Kingdom face with Brexit, the one thing that we can all look to for some respite is music. The music industry, in particular musicians playing live, has been hit as hard as any other – arguably more so – with touring being a greater source of income for bands in recent years as streaming and downloading has tightened its grip. 2020 was certainly the year for writing rather than performing.
As we approached the end of 2020, Solstice provided us with that much needed hearty uplift and positivity in spades, with their release of Sia (pronounced “Shee – a”). A Scottish Gaelic word meaning ‘Six’, this album has a cohesiveness apparent throughout, in its music, its lyrics, artwork, overall production and, quite simply, in its intent. This is the sixth album in their forty year history, there are six in the band, there are six new songs (albeit with an exceptional re-recorded seventh harking back to their debut album, 1984’s Silent Dance). And it is truly exceptional… More about that in a minute.
Solstice, under the guidance and direction of Andy Glass since formation, is a band that shies away from being pigeon-holed within a specific genre. They started life in 1980 alongside neo-prog bands such as Marillion, IQ, Pendragon and Twelfth Night, but they set themselves apart with the inclusion of electric violin and strings, a folky feel without being ‘folk’, something that they have stuck with throughout their career; it’s their unique selling point. They fall smack bang in the middle of the musical Venn diagram of prog-rock, folk, neo-prog, acoustic rock, symphonic and a whole host of other genres, to the extent that they could credibly be allocated their own genre, and it would be richly deserved. Wouldn’t that be cool… the Solstice genre…?
With Sia, the band is as joined up as I’ve ever heard it. Andy Glass (guitars) and Jenny Newman (fiddle) have known each other for many years and play in a dance band alongside Jess Holland (vocals). As I understand it, it was only when Jess did a few voice overs that Andy had a eureka moment in his search for a vocalist to fit Solstice. I seem to remember that Genesis had that same eureka moment in 1975 after Peter Gabriel left for pastures new? A Trick Of The Tail was their moment, and Sia is Solstice’s.
Cueing up the first track (yes, I’m a vinyl man…), there’s an immediate feeling that this is a new chapter for the band. It’s been 36 years since their last vinyl release and I get a real sense that they have come full circle through their intervening catalogue, returning to the roots of Silent Dance. Indeed, not only is it full circle for their catalogue, but they come full circle within the album as the last track, A New Day, mimics the opening bars of the first track Shout. In the round, the combination of Andy’s delicate acoustic guitar and soaring Floydian electric guitar, Jess’s smooth youthful vocals and Jenny’s strings, is like holding a precious glass full of your favourite tipple. Of course, all that is underpinned with Robin Phillips and Peter Hemsley’s rhythm section and Steven McDaniel’s luscious keys.
So, what of the music? Shout starts with a glorious sunrise section, before exploding into an energetic and lengthy opener at over 12-minutes. All the band members get an equal opportunity to showcase their talents, Jess Holland providing vim and vigour and one immediately knows this singer means business. The middle section allows you to draw breath and this is the first time one hears just how supremely skilled Jess is, and those lyrics: “And have you seen the band, They’re standing hand in hand, In unity and love…” It’s the first lip-trembler. And just as one wipes away a tear, it returns to the original energy. What a perfect start…
This is followed by two glorious tracks, Love Is Coming and Long Gone, that allow you to ease back in a comfortable armchair and soak up acoustic guitars, smooth vocals and harmonies, glued together with strings and a constant reassuring beat from the rhythm section. Is that a melodica I can hear? The video is a must see, as the band welcomes Jess into the fold.
Stand Up is a track that very closely emulates their work from Silent Dance; a very happy yet energetic song, and one that could easily find you dancing… This moves seamlessly into Seven Dreams, a steady track peppered with a lovely touch of Spanish in the lyrics, “El amore es todo, si, si” (“Love is everything, yeah, yeah”), before we lie back to take in Andy’s stupendous and prominent guitar work; this is going to be very gratifying to watch live.
The closing new track is A New Day, which pulls the emotion of the whole album together. Andy’s vocals are right at the front, more than complementing Jess’s soprano. There is another excellent video to support it, and I challenge anyone to not be moved by it. We see Jess on acoustic guitar and, when Jenny hits us with her fiddle work, there is a huge Cheshire Cat grin on Andy’s face. He knows he’s got a winner here. My favourite part of the whole album is the lyrical reference back to Silent Dance… genius. But wait, there’s more, a guitar solo that proves this to be one of the best symphonic prog tracks of the modern era. It’s my best track of 2020, and contender for the best in their repertoire, maybe the best ever.
The final track is a total refresh of Cheyenne, from 1984’s Silent Dance, composed long before Jess was even born. Andy has expressed the view that he has always wanted more from this song; it is clearly one of his favourites, given his desire to improve the original. It fits beautifully with the new work, and demonstrates how Solstice has come full circle. I hope it now meets Andy’s original expectations.
This is an album that has to be played from start to finish; let’s have none of this download and re-shuffle. One really senses that Andy carefully chose the running order, starting with the upbeat Shout to set the scene, and closing the new songs with A New Day, a song so filled with emotion that you feel you’ve been on a long and immensely satisfying journey. Phil Collins lamented in his reissues from a couple of years back that the advent of the CD started the downward spiral whereby we lost the whole idea of having two sides of music: “After the opening song, you had to think of side one’s closer; something that made the listener want to turn the record over and carry on listening! Obviously, you put a great strong song at the start of side two, ending with the album’s big hitter, the ‘closing track’. All that’s gone now … Anything with depth can be lost forever.” Wise words indeed, and words that are corroborated by Sia.
I give particular praise for the quality of the mix, again, undertaken by Andy. Remember that this record was conceived and constructed whilst the musicians were in Covid-19 lockdown, so to have achieved such a depth of sound (such as we hear) from the series of musical files is extraordinary.
So there we have it. High energy, supremely relaxing, and parts that can bring grown men to tears. They have hit a sweet spot with this album which demonstrates that they are – or ought to be – destined for the stars. Andy Glass has set himself a very high bar indeed, but with 40 years of compositional and arranging experience, and a gifted multi-generational band behind him, it was meant to be. There are plans to tour and there is new music in the pipeline. I shan’t be missing it.
I, like many, switched to digital format in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I divested myself of circa 1,000 LPs, keeping about 10 that I simply could not bear to part with, records that were – and still are – part of my very existence. Silent Dance was one of those. That beautiful record now has a treasured partner. It’s been a difficult year but this album makes one feel enriched… uplifted and positive.
01. Shout (12:45)
02. Love Is Coming (6:28)
03. Long Gone (4:09)
04. Stand Up (6:13)
05. Seven Dreams (7:46)
06. A New Day (6:52)
07. Cheyenne 2020 (6:46)
Total Time – 51:00
Andy Glass – Guitars, Vocals
Jess Holland – Vocals
Robin Phillips – Bass
Peter Hemsley – Drums
Jenny Newman – Fiddle
Steven McDaniel – Keyboards
Record Label: Giant Electric Pea
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 23rd November 2020