Proof of just how far Holden has strayed from even the loosest bonds of club music.
James Holden’s curious, wide career arc maintains its trajectory into the realm of electro-pagan folk with his new collaboration with the Animal Spirits, a crew of like-minded musical collaborators Tom Page, Etienne Jaumet, Marcus Hamblett, Liza Bec and Lascelle Gordon. Multi-instrumentalists, trained improvisers and well-traveled musical sponges, the Spirits provide a live sounding board for the kind of material Holden programmed in his towering 2013 album, The Inheritors, adding in elements of free jazz and the artist’s recent forays into African music to further expand his palette. The result is an unwieldy, fascinating new effort from one of electronic music’s most forward-thinking producers, bio-digital jazz without borders.
Structured like a single, constantly changing piece, The Animal Spirits warms up with a buzzing organ and choral vocals over instruments that simulate rainwater and the rustling of leaves, blossoming from there into the chiming percussion and floating reeds of “Spinning Dance.” Dance in this case refers not to the four-on-the-floor steadiness of Holden’s peers but something more primitive, drawing a jagged line between dance’s innate eroticism and its contemporary libidinal connotations as swells of noise and layered synths add splashes of modern color. “Pass Through the Fire,” the album’s lead single, builds upon Holden’s recent forays into Moroccan music – particularly his collaboration with Maalem Mahmoud Guinia – pitting keyboard loops against each other before adding in fuzz and Jaumet’s saxophone. The net result somehow recalls Holden’s past as a trance master, leaving enough space between instruments to prevent the whole thing devolving into noise but nonetheless encouraging the listener to bliss out to its loping rhythms.
The complexity and wide-ranging stylistic input of the track prefigures some surprising elements that crop up throughout the album, most especially the run of video game-influenced music that stretches over the middle of the record. “The Beginning & End of the World” could pass as music for a Super Nintendo JRPG without raising suspicions; it especially resembles the style of Yasunori Mitsuda, whose Chrono Trigger soundtrack similarly contains a broad range of expression. The intrusion of Jaumet’s saxophone toward the end even recalls Mitsuda’s curious jazz arrangement of the game’s score. “Each Moment Like the First,” meanwhile, has the laid back, bright synth patterns endemic to intro screens of the 16-bit era. Syncopated drums propel the percolating pattern as shimmering synth fills burst high overhead.
Some of the game music carries over into the album’s final third, occupying the middle space in “Thunder Moon Gathering” with whirring RPG music as the Spirits return to the fore with heated jazz runs before colliding with muted hi-NRG trance in “The Animal Spirits,” a contradiction that is never truly resolved despite carrying on for nearly six minutes. The album’s closing stretch should build all the disparate sonic elements to a climax, but, if anything, things diverge. Though recorded in one take and mixed without overdubs, the increasing separation of Holden’s programming and the band’s playing in the final two tracks threatens to pull the two too far apart to reconcile. The calm, falling action is not inherently weak, but nothing in the last four tracks has the same spark of abandon that characterizes the first half. Where The Inheritors presented a wild vision of neo-primitivism, The Animal Spirits is more of a lark, a casual experiment between friends that is more content to simply live in the moment of its play. As such, it does not reach the same heights as its predecessor, but even the modestly disappointing finale is proof of just how far Holden has strayed from even the loosest bonds of club music.