Album Reviews

Issue 2022-077

It's Prog-Tober! 31+ albums and reviews in 31 days!

Round Table Review

John Holden — Kintsugi

John Holden - Kintsugi
Achilles (10:49), Ringing The Changes (3:44), Kintsugi (7:04), Flying Train (5:33), Xenos (5:43), Against The Tide (5:27), Peggy’s Cove (4:21), Building Heaven (11:35)
Theo Verstrael

It is common practice to get audio files and additional information on an album once you have applied to do a review. With this new John Holden album, things went a bit differently. I had no clue whatsoever that his album was imminent, so I was utterly surprised when suddenly the files of that album landed in my inbox, sent by the artist himself!

As the reviewer for his former album Circles In Time, I interpreted the absence of any comment from his side as an open invitation to do a review once more. But finding out that I was mentioned in the acknowledgements, amongst other reviewers from different media, made me wonder if I was the right person to do the review. Fortunately this turned out to be a duo as Holden's recent releases are so highly appreciated by the prog community. So I think there is enough critical mass to counterbalance any prejudice imposed on me as a reaction to his highly valued kindness.

Holden hasn't changed much in his way of producing his music, as was to be expected. He has called in the help of numerous musical friends again, many of which also played on his former albums. That Joe Payne (vocals), Sally Minnear (vocals), Vikram Shankar (keyboards), Frank van Essen (drums, violin, viola), Michel St. Père (guitar on the title track), and Jean Pageau (flute). Peter Jones (that man is just everywhere these days) also played on Circles In Time. New are Henry Rogers (Mostly Autumn, drums), Dave Bainbridge (Lifesigns, guitar), Jake Lizzio (guitar) and Iain Hornai (vocals). Holden himself plays a wide array of instruments. He wrote all the music and produced the album, as well as the beautiful booklet. He wrote the lyrics with his wife Lizzie.

Working with an already excellent bunch of musicians, I wondered if the extension of musical company resulted in an even better album.

Being not at all acquainted with the Japanese culture, the title Kintsugi immediately intrigued me. It refers to a Japanese cultural tradition of repairing cracks in pottery with gold; so artistically illustrated on the cover.

Knowing that Circles In Time contained a great epic about Tutankhamun, I more or less expected this album to deal with Japanese subjects extensively. Well it doesn't, but that is absolutely not a disappointment, for the issues dealt with in the lyrics are as eclectic and diverse as one can wish for. The album offers six medium-length songs, bookended by two epics clocking in at well over 10 minutes. All deal with a very specific aspect of the human life.

The awesome booklet with a fine mixture of artistic images and personal photos, contains not only all the lyrics but also, as he has done earlier, words on the inspiration for each individual song. I personally cherish that very much, it is an enrichment and adds much to the enjoyment of the songs.

After numerous spins, I had to admit that I found this album more difficult to get into than the previous one.

First, there is the rather high level of similarity between some new songs and those on his former releases. The best example is Against The Tide, a very pleasant song in itself, but in melody and style almost the same as High Lines on Circles In Time.

Holden deliberately meant to record a follow-up song to that song, and to my taste he succeeds a bit too well. The overall Steely Dan-mood and vocal lines are so reminiscent, that it sounds almost as a cheap twin-song. The lyrics even contain a “high lines” reference which doesn't make it any better. But for those who haven't heard his former album, the song remains quite nice to listen to, but the similarities are a bit too much to my taste.

The second reason is the opening of the album. Inspired by the sad story of his legendary protagonist Achilles, Holden lets his mother, who is well aware that her son will soon die in battle, sing a wordless chant. The soft keys accompanying her shrieky vocals are beautiful but the vocals itself are too high-pitched for my taste. Who the female singer is, can't be found in the booklet, alas. It is a daring opening of the album and I can fully see the logic of it, but that doesn't make it attractive to listen to, let alone beautiful.

Promo artwork for the album

Fortunately the lament doesn't last long, and after one-and-a-half minute the song calmly develops into a real mini-opera. That Joe Payne's vocals are excellent throughout the song, while the subtle instrumentation slowly builds towards a rather loud battle part halfway, played by shredding guitars followed by a fierce keys solo. That loud part lasts for almost two minutes, after which the calm melody of the opening returns, with dual vocals and subtle piano. Towards the end, a beautiful guitar solo leads to the coda in which the intro is replayed on acoustic guitar and keys, rounding off this strong song.

The other epic, Building Heaven, closes the album. The song was inspired by the immediate rebuilding of the Coventry cathedral after its destruction during WWII. The orchestral opening, mainly played on keyboards, accompanied in the end by guitar and rounded-off with a beautiful flute solo, gives way to a fantastic vocal performance by Minnear. This is set against a very intricate musical background with flute, acoustic and electric guitar and a wealth of orchestral keys. At 4:30 the alerts sound, a shrieking violin calls for imminent danger and the almost cacophonic music mimics the bombing of the church. A short but heavenly guitar solo introduces the activities that were undertaken immediately after the bombing, leading to the rebuilding of the church some seven years later. This song benefits from the description of its inspiration, as the meaning of the different musical parts fall into place.

In-between the two epics, are six fine songs ranging from just under four minutes, to well over seven minutes. The short Ringing The Changes is a deceivingly simple, typically English folk song with more fabulous vocals by Minnear. The subtlety lies in the sparse but effective instrumentation which gives ample room to the vocals but sets the scene when necessary. The lyrics refer to the bell ringers of a typically English parish and all the traditions that surround them.

In spite of its title, Kintsugi sounds less Japanese than expected. The long instrumental part starting after two-and-a-half minute hints to Japan but the eastern mood is never dominant. Peter Jones sings the vocals, and as always does a great job, while Van Essen's violin and St. Pere's guitar, work together splendidly.

The opening of Flying Train are some spoken German words recorded at Wupperthal's Suspension Bridge, the oldest electric elevated railway in the world. It gives the song an immediate sense of authenticity which is strengthened by the fine, dynamic instrumental music. Towards the end, the fine piano playing emerges upfront in the mix followed by a vintage keys solo, which both sound awesome. This song is also released as a video single that is more than worth seeing.

The musical atmosphere of Xenos, with the clever use of rhythmic keys and percussion and a infectious chorus, made me think of 10CC's Dreadlock Holiday. The lead vocals by Hornai are very fine, the music quite poppy and a bit pulsating. The lyrics deal with the present state of hospitality in (western? rich? developed?) countries towards the numerous refugees all around the world. Although Holden doesn't speak out firmly, it is very clear what he thinks of it.

In Peggy's Cove Holden has tried to encapsulate his experiences when visiting the place of that name in Nova Scotia, Canada. The haunting uillean pipe sounds of the intro are created by keys but sound great. Minnear does the lead vocals, and again she succeeds in lifting this folky music to a higher level. It is a rather small song with a moody orchestral arrangement featuring the piano, that easily brings about images of desolate landscapes and wild coasts.

To come back to the question posed earlier, did the addition of even more excellent guest musicians lead to a even better album? Well, in my opinion not quite. Holden has again produced a fine album full of very attractive, sophisticated and melodious songs, with intriguing lyrics. The album offers many beautiful musical moments that slowly creep under your skin to be cherished for a long time. But to me, it doesn't equal his former album. Then again, maybe that was just an impossible goal to achieve.

This new album is again very good, and it is an amazing accomplishment in itself to release four high-quality albums within five years. Still it's certainly highly recommended!

Greg Cummins

Considering how well received his previous albums have been by my fellow reviewers, I thought I'd climb on board to see what was really lying underneath with John Holden's latest effort.

When the first song started I was instantly transfixed, thinking this was an amazing song that really deserved to be heard by a wider public. It has the most alluring melodies throughout, with soft acoustic flourishes, scintillating synthesizer runs, heavier sections filled with really inspiring ideas and just an incredible aura about it. It is one of the best songs I have heard in years and leaves so many others in its wake. Featuring the mesmerising voice of That Joe Payne, I thought I detected the faintest similarity to some better known songs by Cirque Du Soleil, but which then changed to some very emotive singing slightly reminiscent of more acoustic singers.

Exploring further, we discover a very pleasant and accessible song which might have you thinking Candice Night from Blackmore's Night was holding the microphone, such is the delicate nature of Sally Minnear's singing.

On the title track, Kintsugi, Pete Jones takes over with what surely must be one of the most pleasant voices in the business. He must be a very busy guy, as his services are sought right throughout Europe and the UK as he has featured on so many collaborative albums recently. Being so much in demand really stands to reason, as his dreamy but solid and effective voice adds so much texture to the songs on which he is featured. Kintsugi is no exception. It also embraces some pleasant keyboard excursions which wind their way throughout the song.

Xenos has a simple rhythm. Although reasonably catchy, it is the pleasant vocals courtesy of Iain Hornal that really provide some more structure and accessibility.

Against The Tide sees the return of Pete Jones on vocals, which denotes more of a Toto sound but it is the excellent sax that adds a nice subtlety to the song. This song is probably the most radio-friendly track on the album, as it possesses a more predictable structure than one detects with bands such as Steely Dan or Chicago, who also use a jazzier format for their own music.

Peggy's Cove also sees the return of Sally Minnear on vocals, which alongside some haunting keyboard accompaniment, is more reminiscent of Renaissance.

The closing song introduces the incredible talents of the equally busy Dave Bainbridge on guitar along with Jean Pageau (Mystery) on flute. The soaring lead breaks are effective, if a little short, but added to the infectious riffs throughout, make this one of the best songs to grace the album.

Individually, the last 7 songs on the album would easily rate a score of 7 or 8 on their own but considering the strength of the opening song, which scores a worthy 10, collectively, you'd have to add considerably to a total score of about 8.5. Seeing this is the first album by John that I have heard, I'm happy to pump that up to a very well deserved 9, as the music is just so engaging, well played and composed.

I have since arranged to obtain his back catalogue, as I find his music too intriguing not to fully explore all of his work.

Geoff Feakes

John Holden is part of the current wave of melodic prog acts that includes Big Big Train, Dave Bainbridge, Lee Abraham, Robert Reed, Downes Braide Association, Tiger Moth Tales and That Joe Payne. He's also, by his own admission, a "massive" Yes fan, which gives you some idea of where he's coming from musically.

Kintsugi is his fourth album, following in the footsteps of Capture Light (2018), Rise And Fall (2020), and Cicles In Time (2021), which have all been enthusiastically received by the DPRP.

Despite appearing from relative obscurity, Holden's previous albums have featured an impressive list of guest names, and likewise Kintsugi boasts contributions from some of contemporary prog's finest. Holden himself provides guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion, orchestration and programming, and is responsible for the songs, with his wife Elizabeth contributing to the lyrics.

The album is bookended by two mini-epic-length tracks, Achilles and Building Heaven. Achilles was inspired by a sculpture of the Greek warrior, and opens with a haunting sequence with ethereal wordless vocals from the ex-The Enid frontman Joe Payne. Tranquil acoustic guitar is joined by Payne's measured singing, before a moody guitar solo worthy of Steve Hackett. At 6:30, jagged chords introduce a martial-like 'battle sequence' featuring a noodly synth solo courtesy of American virtuoso Vikram Shankar. Payne's wistful vocal and acoustic guitar brings the song to a poignant close.

The pastoral Ringing the Changes takes as its subject a group of English village bell ringers. Sally Minnear (daughter of Gentle Giant keyboardist Kerry Minnear) adopts a folk lilt, supported by acoustic guitar, piano and rich keyboard orchestrations. The melancholic vocal tones of Peter Jones, (AKA Tiger Moth Tales), graces the title song celebrating the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which recognises that none of us are perfect. It's a beautiful song with intricate instrumental backing and ex-Iona Frank Van Essen's exquisite violin bowing. The choral hook is heavenly, embracing Mystery guitarist Michel St-Père's reverberating solo.

The instrumental Flying Train is a tribute to the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in Germany. The keyboard orchestrations are a delight, with Mostly Autumn drummer Henry Rogers' relentless pattern driving the music forward. Shankar's piano and synth flourishes have a touch of Rick Wakeman about them.

Like the opening song, the rhythmic Xenos has Greek origins and features the multi-tracked vocal talents of Iain Hornall. He's a touring member of 10cc and Jeff Lynne's ELO and sounds not unlike the late David Longdon of Big Big Train fame.

Peter Jones returns for the upbeat Against the Tide which chronicles a struggling relationship, and is a continuation of the song High Line on the previous album. It has a smooth-but-funky jazz-rock feel in the style of Chicago with a touch of Earth, Wind and Fire, enhanced by Jones' sax embellishments and lush harmonies. It would have sat comfortably on any of Phil Collins' solo albums in the early 1980s.

The penultimate Peggy's Cove is dedicated to the bay in Nova Scotia. It has a Celtic ambiance with keyboard orchestrations replicating the sound of the Uilleann pipes, with rhythmic piano chords and Sally Minnear once again providing the vocals.

Building Heaven is dedicated to Coventry Cathedral in middle England which was destroyed during air raids and rebuilt following the Second World War. It has a prog-folk vibe, with Jean Pageau's flute and Dave Bainbridge's chiming 12-string guitar supporting Sally Minnear's heavenly singing. A turbulent instrumental sequence simulates the destruction of the cathedral, followed by a classical guitar and tuned percussion interlude. Bainbridge's soaring lead guitar is joined by a choir which unites the album's four singers for the triumphant finale.

Kintsugi is another triumph from John Holden, maintaining the high musical standards established by his three previous albums. The quality of the songs can be measured by the superb performances he elicits from his guest singers. An album that can boast memorable songs, stunning musicianship and tasteful production is a rarity in this current musical climate. Kintsugi is already on my shortlist for album of the year.

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