John Holden - Proximity & Chance

John Holden – Proximity & Chance

A new album by composer and multi-instrumentalist John Holden is always a cause for celebration. John abandoned a successful business career to venture into the music industry, releasing his first album, Capture Light in 2018 to great critical acclaim. Being something of a perfectionist, he likes to enlist the help of a few willing friends to add an extra touch of class to his albums, including such top tier musicians as Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Camel et al). Peter’s are the main vocals on Proximity & Chance, with additional contributions from Sally Minnear and Shaun Holton. In terms of instrumentals, most of what we hear is performed by John himself, including keyboards, guitars, bass and orchestral arrangements, with strategically placed moments in the spotlight from special guests including Luke Machin (The Tangent, Karnataka) and John Hackett. As a new venture he has also programmed the drumming, meticulously creating an authentic sound that could easily pass for the real thing.

John’s albums are characterised by his remarkable ability to tell stories and paint pictures in sound. His subject matter is always stimulating, and the quality of the research as well as the beauty of the lyrics is testimony to his collaboration with his wife, Elizabeth. John has a prodigious talent for crafting an elegant and memorable tune, and the musical narratives on this album are told in a highly melodic and versatile style of symphonic crossover prog incorporating occasional elements from genres such as rock and musical theatre. A clue to the title and unifying theme is shown in John’s own beautiful and arresting album art which combines images of the double helix of DNA with the tree of life, its roots and branches extending into past and future.

13: We are welcomed to the album by an engaging foot-tapper celebrating The Thirteen Club, a group founded in 1880 which included five US presidents. Meetings were devoted to deliberately flouting as many superstitions as possible, and this song brilliantly captures the subversive thrill of rule-breaking. Peter Jones’ energetic vocals sparkle in response to the witty lyrics, enhanced by catchy instrumental riffs and topical interjections from a diverse palette of orchestral sounds. Add to this a guest appearance by Dave Brons rocking the party with an exhilarating guitar solo, and you have a track that opens the album with style and panache.

The Man Who Would Be King is the first of two tracks featuring the heavier vocals of Shaun Holton. Based on Kipling’s cautionary tale of a soldier who attempts to gain power by impersonating a god, it offers a chilling indictment of the arrogance of colonialism. John establishes atmospheric local colour by adding ethnic instruments to his symphonic palette and using modes and intervals with a strong Middle Eastern flavour. The imperial legacy is represented by the trumpet theme, introduced masterfully by guest soloist Moray Macdonald, which permeates the whole song. Shaun’s versatile delivery dramatically conveys moods ranging from arrogant heroism, through uncertainty and fear to disillusion and despair. The instrumentals, including a stunning synth solo from regular guest Vikram Shankar, are gorgeously evocative, cinematic, and powerful, and are given space to convey and develop the emotional narrative just as eloquently as the lyrics.

When asked about musical influences John revealed that his style is often affected by the musicians he works with. So, it is perhaps not surprising that A Sense of Place, a graceful instrumental inspired by a scenic Welsh garden, has an atmosphere reminiscent of the gentle world of Peter Jones’ Tiger Moth Tales. The mellifluous flute of John Hackett entwines with Vikram’s elegant piano, floating serenely in a proggy 5/4 above rippling arpeggios that suggest the gentle splash of a fountain – or perhaps the steady fall of the inevitable Welsh rain!

Burnt Cork and Limelight is a theatrical and symphonic tour de force. Peter delivers an outstanding performance both vocally and dramatically as Victorian actor Richard Prince, who in an act of revenge stabbed his more successful rival to death. The track’s expansively soaring main theme is expressively introduced on piano and strings and reprised in Pete’s vocals, full of naïve optimism as the young actor fondly imagines his rapid ascent to stardom. As his dreams shatter this sumptuous lyricism turns to dissonance and his descent into insanity is chillingly portrayed by jagged, staccato phrases lobbed like insults from one instrument to another. Peter reveals Prince’s murderous intentions in a chilling aside to the audience and the instrumentals paint a graphic picture of his crime, pursuit and arrest. With sinister symmetry the soaring theme from the opening returns as Prince relives his fantasy of fame and adulation from the confines of a prison cell. Peter’s manically triumphant vocals and John’s sweeping and appropriately theatrical orchestration blur the boundary between fantasy and reality as we, like the audience of prisoners, fall under the spell of Prince’s deluded imagination.

Agents depicts escalating acts of aggression on the part of a certain nation, beginning with the Salisbury novichok poisonings and culminating in the invasion of Ukraine. Shaun’s vocals exude menace and the instrumentals gradually spiral in intensity from terse anxiety to abject paranoia. Luke Machin’s guitar introduces a note of mystery while Peter’s agile antics on organ and saxophone evoke the spurious glamour of espionage. After all the excitement the track ends as it began, with a repeated chiming figure suggesting the inexorable countdown of a time bomb.

The nostalgically evocative Fini paints a haunting picture of a failed holiday romance. With its gently flowing melodies and subtly beautiful orchestration, it provides the perfect foil for the distorted rhythms and angular melodies of Agents. It is a bittersweet love song to a city, and the sights and sounds of Paris flow through the track like the calm waters of the Seine. Both music and lyrics are dominated by the bells of Notre Dame; the chorus melody mimics pealing chimes and Sally’s vocals ring out as clear and pure as any church tower carillon.

Strings shimmer like a heat haze, wide-ranging melodies on flute and cello conjure vast open spaces and a wordless choir invokes a sense of awe. This is Proximity and we are gazing down on Mars, our next-door neighbour, in the days when it was still a luxuriant, watery world which in different circumstances might have followed a similar development to our own. John originally planned to open the album with this track – which I think would have worked well – and like a classical overture it is interspersed with thinly disguised quotations from three tracks occurring earlier in the album. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you which ones!

Chance is an upbeat anthem affirming humankind’s historic legacy, our power to alter our fate and the ultimate importance of love, both for our dear ones and towards all humanity. The bright tones of acoustic and electric guitars are to the fore, and the addition of backing harmonies from Shaun and Sally lends extra sparkle and brightness to Peter’s uplifting vocals. After a joyously exuberant outburst from Luke’s guitar the stage seems set for a triumphant apotheosis, but the final perspective is personal and intimate, with all three voices movingly joined in acapella harmony to proclaim unity “under one sun”.

John Holden has once more produced a top-class album that is an utter delight to listen to. He has a remarkably vivid and precise aural imagination and goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his ideas are perfectly realised. This is evident in the inspired choice of guest artists, his meticulously selected palette of orchestral sounds and the subtle changes of colour and nuance which ensure freshness and variety throughout each song. His own painstaking mixing and mastering ensures that every detail emerges with precision and clarity.  Proximity & Chance, with its vivid storytelling, captivating melodies, vibrant orchestration and superlative musicianship provides an enchanting feast for the ears and the imagination and is another triumph for this perfectionist of a composer.

01. 13 (5:27)
02. The Man Who Would Be King (10:37)
03. A Sense of Place (3:09)
04. Burnt Cork and Limelight (10:30)
05. Agents (6:54)
06. Fini (4:42)
07. Proximity (4:40)
08. Chance (Under One Sun) (7:51)

Total Time – 53:50

John Holden – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Orchestration
Dave Brons – Guitar Solo (1)
John Hackett – Flute (3)
Shaun Holton – Vocals (2 & 5)
Peter Jones – Vocals (1,4 & 8), Organ & Saxophone (5)
Moray Macdonald – Trumpet (2)
Luke Machin – Guitar (5), (end) Guitar solo (8)
Sally Minnear – Vocals (6)
Vikram Shankar – Piano (3 & 4), Synth solo (2)

Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 31st May 2024

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