The undeclared King of Classical Prog fusion once more sends his call out far and wide for the best musicians to assemble and help infuse album number four, Kintsugi, with their prowess, skills and wizardry, and in this they surely succeed.
The ‘King’, John Holden, has reached into his treasure chest and pulled forth a cornucopia of riches; tracks deftly crafted together, at first seemingly disparate, but there is a thread running through… but more of that later.
Those famous ‘proggy household names’ that adorn the cover of the album line-up include vocalists Sally Minnear, Peter Jones, That Joe Payne and Iain Hornal, with a cameo from Elizabeth (or Libby, in her more familiar guise!) Holden. Vikram Shankar features on keyboards, and also guitar, alongside Michel St. Pere, Dave Bainbridge and the maestro himself John Holden, who also weighs in on bass, keyboards, percussion and orchestral programming. Drums are cherished by Henry Rogers and Frank Van Essen, who also brings forth the violin. And I mustn’t forget the stalwart vocal talents of a certain Boris Stalf, whose eloquence is so apt in his brief appearance introducing one of the tracks… I’ll leave you to guess that one!
Not everyone is a fan of track-by-track reviews, but in this instance it seems appropriate in teasing out the meanings behind each one to showcase the fabric binding each one together.
Starting with the title track, Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold, thus making it stronger and more enriched, which has of course a far deeper meaning, that you ‘need to break it to become stronger’. This can work on many levels. Peter Jones provides us with the absolutely sublime vocals, and in challenging times, magnified by the global pandemic and latterly the war in Europe and the subsequent economic and social impacts, it is pertinent to everyone. It is a song where the flaws we carry as human beings come to the fore, but there is hope, always hope.
After the opening verses, there follows a proggy interlude featuring violin, which subtly draws us back into the vocal, building to gentle yet powerful soaring orchestral and vocal harmony. Then Michel St. Pere sweeps in with a gorgeous guitar solo, with that wonderful tone he employs so well with Mystery, before, once more, the vocal leads us out. A fine track and well deserving of the honour of title for the album.
Going backwards now to the opening track, it is an epic tale centred around the daring exploits of one young man, Achilles. The song begins quietly, drawing this listener in with a plaintive wailing of the character Theist, the mother of Achilles, knowing full well her son has chosen the short path of glory over a peaceful life amongst family. The track then turns and begins to pick up pace with Achilles (That Joe Payne) bringing the story to life, but in the full and terrible knowledge he is embarking on a fateful mission, choosing unending fame over anonymity.
The battle then ensues, with a bombastic sound, before Achilles inevitably heads toward his destiny. Soaring guitar drives the track with Payne repeating the name ‘Achilles’ over and over. Reaching unfettered heights, he passes, and the song winds down as it began. A true Greek tragedy.
Whilst still digesting this, we segue into an English country village, a place where time moves more slowly than in its larger urban cousins, a setting for the art of bell ringing that brings together disparate gentle idiosyncratic folk, to strive as a team, and achieve those glorious peals that are beloved by campanologists everywhere. Ringing the Changes is a very festive sounding track, and Sally Minnear’s mellifluous pure vocals guide us through this delightful story. A lot of background research by Libby Holden unveiled an understanding of this ancient but satisfying pastime, and Ringing the Changes does just that after the opus of the previous song. A job well done!
Jumping around once more to another story with a Greek connection, Xenos. The word ‘xenos’ is Greek for the innate desire to show hospitality and friendship to foreigners. One step removed from this is the word ‘xenophobia’, the diametrically opposed stance in fearing difference in strangers from another land. This is a song of the intolerance of people towards others with unfamiliar backgrounds, creeds and origins. There is a dichotomy in this country in particular, which finds compassion so readily at times of disaster and need, yet there is a strongly woven thread of nimbyism running through society that shuns newcomers, and this is no more apparent than in the anger and fear shown for displaced migrants fleeing from war, political dogma and famine, crossing the Channel in desperation. That’s a whole bigger discussion outside of this review!
For this song, John brings in another multi-talented artist in the form of Iain Hornal, best known for his work with Jeff Lynne’s ELO and Graham Gouldman’s 10cc. A brief orchestral introduction leads into the song, with Iain’s plaintive vocalisation of the frustrations of those who battle their way through seemingly impossible odds, seeking out a new safer life, only for those hopes to be dashed by the closing of society’s ranks. Vikram Shanker’s organ playing is a strong accompaniment to this cry for help. Thought provoking.
Now, back a track; this time, an (almost) instrumental, albeit broken only by the spoken words of a German train announcer introducing the Flying Train, a piece of engineering which at the turn of the last century was ground-breaking in its concept and execution. An overhead monorail running through the city and suburbs of Wuppertal in North West Germany. Inspired by an old movie reel of footage from the time, Holden has created this soundtrack, mirroring the journey on screen. The announcement over, the music begins with a wailing and semi-industrial sound of the cogs turning, the train beginning to move, before the wonderful counterpoint of orchestral ‘dream flight’ and staccato percussion portraying the carriages gliding through the cityscape. Some brief oriental moments intercede before the Teutonic beat resumes. Celebratory tinkling piano and orchestral strings lift and bring more life to the tune, before dashing keys and and orchestral fade. A lovely tune.
For this reviewer, the most unusual yet brilliant song is Against the Tide. It is linked to a song on the previous album called High Line and is in effect a sequel to a relationship that began in romantic fashion in New York, but time and circumstances have led the two characters, Gina and Dan, to a new setting on the opposite coast. The stretching of their romance has led to the realisation that they must do something if they want to stave off a break up. The vocals once more are by the impeccable Pete Jones, this time bringing a Paul Carrack / Michael McDonald vibe to this sultry, late night West Coast club, setting the scene. The smooth saxophone is counterpoint to the anguish in the lyrics, as they realise this is a ‘make or break’ moment… to be continued?
Heading back across the expanse of North America to the far Eastern coast of Nova Scotia, and the setting of St. Margaret’s Bay, with ‘Peggy’ being the shortened version of ‘Margaret’. After a brief nod to the origins in Scotland, the song takes on a Celtic, folky mantle and Sally Minnear sings of how the area became known as Peggy’s Cove, attracting visitors to the area, so much so that commercialisation of the Cove led to the ‘brand’ being re-created across the planet in Thailand of all places! A soft and homely song that touches a few of our ancestral roots.
Finally, the album moves to a conclusion with what is best described as, using a well worn cliché, a ‘tour de force’, Building Heaven.
The literal interpretation here is the creation of a place of worship, in this instance Coventry Cathedral, that is nurtured and put together by the people, only to be the victim of the bombing campaign of the Second World War. The construction of this piece is so clever, with the use of different members of the string and brass sections in particular. It is music that bears repeating again and again. As the bombing reaches its height, the people of Coventry are dismayed to see their beloved cathedral under attack, and race to fight the fire, only to witness its destruction. Resolutely, they begin once more to build a new and modernised cathedral on a different site, a true example of resurrection in action. There are staccato violins, jangling keys, deep brass, and all manner of effects brought into play to augment the piece. We then move forward on gentle guitar which eventually grows stronger, swooping higher (courtesy of a certain Dave Bainbridge) before back to gentle plucking, swelling, the vocals rising, and the track ending on a positive note of love and achievement.
The social interpretation is one of working together on a daily basis, with courtesy, kindness and generosity of spirit, sadly not always featured strongly in our doom-led media, and reflected in the opposing viewpoints so easily inflamed on social media platforms… again, one for another day and a different platform!
In summary, this album is another new height of achievement for John Holden, and of course, the diligent research and support of Libby, to bring an authenticity and depth to each song. For this reviewer, the theme of the album is around the workings of the human spirit; our frailties, our strengths, our doubts, our tenacity, the unquenchable desire to dust ourselves down and keep going, even at life’s low points, but… there is hope… there is always hope.
01. Achilles (10:48)
02. Ringing the Changes (3:43)
03. Kintsugi (7:04)
04. Flying Train (5:33)
05. Xenos (5:43)
06. Against the Tide (5:27)
07. Peggy’s Cove (4:21)
08. Building Heaven (11:34)
Total Time – 54:13
John Holden – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Orchestration
Dave Bainbridge – Guitar
Michel St. Pere – Guitar
Vikram Shankar – Piano, Keyboards
Frank Van Essen – Violin, Viola
Peter Jones – Saxophone, Flute, Vocals
Henry Rogers – Drums
Joe Payne – Vocals
Sally Minnear – Vocals
Jean Pageu – Vocals
Iain Hornal – Vocals
Elizabeth Holden – Lyrics
Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD | Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 30th September 2022