John Holden returns with his third album Circles in Time, following his somewhat unexpected but captivating debut Capture Light in 2018 and the excellent 2020 follow-up Rise and Fall. Circles in Time in some ways follows the successful template of his first two albums – well-crafted melodic rock songs telling a series of engaging stories, skilfully performed by Holden and a stellar array of collaborators, including artists from Big Big Train, Mystery, Riversea, Mostly Autumn and Cosmograf, alongside the mercurial talent of Peter Jones from Tiger Moth Tales and Camel. In other ways, Holden has broadened his musical palette to encompass a wider range of musical styles to convey his sonic tales. Jazz, Folk, Spanish music and a concluding, sweeping dramatic ‘musical’ worthy of the West End are some of the influences which grace the pages of Holden’s latest musical book.
The listener is instantly engulfed in the throbbing Avalanche of Rock from the album’s opening chords, described vividly by Vikram Shankar’s shimmering keyboards and Eric Portapenko’s impressive fretwork, both co-writing the music for this impressive opening. Nick D’Virgilio’s massive drums add to the impact and sense of a loss of control. Jean Pageau, of Canadian band Mystery, returns for his third appearance on a Holden album, and skilfully alternates sinister tones with more powerful vocal passages, conveying the cynicism and vitriol which seems to beset so much social media. The rocky ride often encountered in such communications is evoked by oscillating, twisty synths from Shankar duelling with Portapenko’s sizzling guitar work, until a closing gentle piano symbolises a plea for forbearance and calmness.
What clearly emerges is that this is a work infused with the warmth of the relationship between John and Libby Holden, as well as casting light on the personal challenges they have faced, particularly around Libby’s illness. The easy-going jazzy coolness of High Line is based on a walk the Holden’s made during their honeymoon on the linear greenway created on an abandoned elevated railway on New York’s West Side. Shankar’s tinkling electric piano and Peter Jones’ slinky saxophone conjure up echoes of Steely Dan. A cool Holden bassline underpins a piece that exudes Manhattan atmosphere and class, Jones’ relaxed voice perfectly judged to fit the scene. I was inspired to take the same High Line walk myself in late 2018 after seeing social media postings by the Holden’s about this fabulous place, and John has perfectly distilled in music the feeling of walking through lush gardens high above the bustling streets and stopping off for a beer in one of the bars. You can almost literally drink in the intoxicating atmosphere of New York as Frank Van Essen on violin and Jones on sax trade lines dripping with sassiness and ‘cool’. It’s certainly not ‘prog’… it’s not ‘Rock’… it’s just perfect for placing you somewhere strangely enchanting – a garden idyll high above the busy Manhattan streets amongst dizzying skyscrapers.
Whilst Honeymoon memories of High Line may chill and delight, the Holden’s relationship gives us something much more touching and powerful in Circles. In the liner notes, Libby openly talks about her experience of facing recurring ovarian cancer and how they try to “live in the moment where sometimes we can find peace and even joy”. Sally Minnear gently sings Libby’s inspiring words over a soft bed of delicate piano, acoustic guitar, keyboards and Robin Armstrong’s subtle bass, until a glistening, synth line embroiders the mid-section. One can only admire the stoicism and strength that inspires the words:
But we can see beyond, there’s comfort and healing
When I’m here with you”
Minnear conveys the emotions imbued in this piece beautifully and one can feel the love the Holden’s hold for each other, offering the song in love for the listeners. The sentimentality, sweet sincerity and lightness of this piece may not enchant everyone, but sometimes we need to drop the cynicism and just surrender ourselves to the strength we can draw from Love, even when things seem like they’re just going round in circles – it’s just a lovely song.
John Holden seems to have an innate ability to find the right singers for each individual song, and his choice of Marc Atkinson’s evocative, rich voice for folk infused The Secret of Chapel Field is perfect, but then again Atkinson simply has one of the best voices in modern progressive rock. Atkinson sings a touching duet alongside Sally Minnear, telling the sad tale of the murder of Mary Malpas in 1835, based on an inscription on a Victorian gravestone found in the Holden’s local village church. The fascinating and extensive sleeve notes outline the background to this tragic song and demonstrate the attention to detail and the inspired innate storytelling abilities of this couple, drawing on untold local history. It’s stuff like that that make John Holden albums stand out. Frank Van Essen shows a different skill in this song, embroidering it with pathos-laden violin and the deeper viola. However, it is the intertwining and affecting vocals of Atkinson and Minnear which really brings this Victorian ghost-like story to life. This atmospheric and finely judged song most resembles previous album Rise and Fall, still my particular favourite release from John Holden.
Speaking of Rise and Fall, Vikram Shankar of Lux Terminus was really quite a find on that album, and he is even more prominent in his outstanding contributions to Circles in Time. This is nowhere more evident than on the instrumental Dreams of Cadiz in which he dazzles with his dexterity on flowing piano, particularly on the fabulous intro into this Flamenco inspired piece. Vikram is joined on acoustic guitar, as the tempo and passion increases, by Oliver Day, a very skilled guitarist who plays with the Yes tribute band Fragile. Henry Rogers, of Mostly Autumn and more recently Mark Kelly’s Marathon, adds subtle drumming to add to the atmosphere, and you can almost imagine drinking a wine at an Andalusian bar watching the dance.
Circles in Time is an album characterised by two main sources of inspiration – clearly the personal and heartfelt features strongly in pieces such as High Line and Circles, whilst a keen interest in history inspires The Secret of Chapel Field and most notably the sprawling epic conclusion to the album KV 62, which ambitiously lasts nearly 20-minutes. The ever-informative sleeve notes tell us ‘KV 62’ was the designation of the tomb found in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt in which the mummified remains and treasures of Tutankhamen were discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922. This is a story which has clearly fascinated both John and Libby Holden ever since seeing these treasures at the British Museum in 1972 (as did I as a young lad). John Holden has deftly and skilfully handled pieces of 9-10 minutes with great success on his first two albums (particularly the splendid Leaf of Faith and Tears from the Sun), but stepping up to take on a near 20-minute epic is another thing altogether. It says something of Holden’s fearlessness and ambition that he chose to compose an extended multi-part piece to describe a grand sweeping narrative, centred on Howard Carter. The Alabaster Prayers and Solar Boats sections are largely instrumental, apart from the brief but portentous narration of actor Jeremy Irons. The atmosphere and sounds are clearly steeped in the Eastern mystery and sands of Egypt, with the impressive and evocative feel of a movie opening sequence laying out the foundations for the story… and then in the background we hear a ’20s style jazz band at Highclere Castle in 1922 in One Last Season. A flowing piano then underpins the unmistakable crystal-clear tones of ex-Enid singer Joe Payne, a ‘frequent flyer’ when it comes to Holden collaborations… and with a sweet voice like that you cannot blame Holden for returning to him again and again. Payne is presumably singing the role of Lord Carnarvon, and talking of sweet voices, he is then joined in duet by Peter Jones, presumably singing as Howard Carter. Holden certainly knows how to pick his vocalists! Payne and Jones play off each other with consummate skill, their stylish, assured voices combining with lush orchestration to give a very real sense that this could easily be a West End musical. The orchestral sounds carry the story forward until we hear the sounds of discovery of an entrance. Eastern themes swell with Nick D’Virgilio’s tribal drumming and Zaid Crowe’s fluid electric guitar. The Wonderful Things section, particularly Shankar’s piano and synths, glitters in tune with the treasures discovered and you get a real sense of the wonder they must have felt.
Now this is where it gets difficult for me – final section Blessings and Curses is pure West End musical in nature (particularly the ‘Tut-mania’ section!), sung with typical aplomb by Peter Jones, particularly the touching conclusion. It’s all very well done, and the sounds probably echo the times of the 1920s and ’30s… but it lost me a bit if I’m honest. I suppose a listener’s attitude towards this ambitious piece may depend on their attitudes to West End musicals. Personally, I like such musicals… but on the stage on the West End. I am not so keen hearing them in such a context, but that is a purely personal taste. There was clearly an intention to be both dramatic and cinematic, but mixing sections that sound like the theatre with other widescreen, more filmic passages did not wholly work for me either. In terms of accomplishment, Holden has undoubtedly been successful in conveying this story in a range of sounds to reflect the historical context of the narrative, and one cannot fault his imagination and willingness to combine a variety of musical styles. Of course, the last paragraph could just be a long-winded way of me saying “I liked it up to that point but then it all got a bit too Phantom of the Opera for me!” (😊). Nevertheless, I feel sure many listeners will hear and see this very differently and will love the diversity and theatricality interweaved with rock and sweeping cinematic music. In the context of the whole album, these are slight reservations and should not detract from the overall high quality and the great enjoyment I derived from listening to it.
The focus could easily go towards his more well-known contributors, but once again considerable credit must go to John Holden for his high-quality song-writing and his multi-instrumental playing skills. He continues to have a great ear for melody and a knack for producing memorable lyrics, alongside his wife Libby. What is also appealing about John Holden is his willingness to stretch his boundaries by working in different musical mediums – he definitely does not go around in circles when it comes to his music.
In short, Circles in Time is another triumph. Imaginative and inspired music with a stellar cast of guests. John Holden is a true artist and this album again displays his ability to skilfully paint high quality musical pictures in various styles. He successfully tells fascinating tales from New York to Egypt, underlining his growing reputation for imaginative and diverse musical and lyrical stories.
01. Avalanche (6:16)
02. High Line (6:58)
03. The Secret Of Chapel Field (7:35)
04. Dreams Of Cadiz (5:18)
05. Circles (5:46)
06. KV62 (19:23)
Total Time – 51:16
John Holden – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Programming, Orchestration, Percussion
Vikram Shankar – Piano & Keyboards
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums & Handpan (tracks 1,2 & 6)
Robin Armstrong – Bass (track 5)
Peter Jones – Vocals & Saxophone (tracks 2 & 6)
That Joe Payne – Vocals (track 6)
Marc Atkinson – Vocals (track 3)
Jean Pageau – Vocals (track 1)
Frank Van Essen – Violin & Viola (tracks 2 & 3)
Oliver Day – Acoustic Guitars & Mandolin (tracks 3 & 4)
Eric Potapenko – Guitar (tracks 1 & 2)
Henry Rogers – Drums (tracks 4 & 5)
Zaid Crowe – Guitar (track 6)
Sally Minnear – Vocals (tracks 3 & 5)
Elizabeth Holden – Backing Vocals & ‘The Water Boy’
Jeremy Irons – Narration (track 6)
Record Label: Independent (John Holden Music)
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 26th March 2021
– Capture Light (2018)
– Rise And Fall (2020)
– Circles In Time (2021)