Caught by the River

Animal Machine

31st October 2017

Robin Turner reviews The Animal Spirits, the latest offering from James Holden and his newly expanded band:

James Holden, © Laura Lewis


I think I could turn and live with animals… they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins… not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.
Lord Summerisle quoting Walt Whitman, The Wicker Man


It’s hard to think of an album released by an established artist that pushes similar buttons to James Holden’s The Animal Spirits; of any record that sounds so joyously untethered from the average musician’s everyday constraints of logical or commercial thinking. The performances captured here are gleeful and entirely free (and truly they sound captured, like they’ve been cornered in the dead of night and rapidly caught on tape before they scuttle off into the dark). Like those ghostly creatures invoked in the record’s title, this music is wild.

Although first famous as a trance producer, Holden has previous experience as an explorer of musical outer edges. Even as a hugely in-demand remixer, he was never ‘the average musician’ (one wonders what the hardcore Britney Spears fan made of his remix of her 2009 single ‘Breathe On Me’). After announcing that he’d given up remixing, he released his last long player – 2013’s The Inheritors. That album gave a pretty good impression of where he was headed. It was something like a techno record, only one seemingly made with instruments hewn from rock and stone and wood… and as brilliant and pretentious as that sounds. The Inheritors worked perfectly – it presented a kind of living electronica, bound by its own rules. At its most transcendent, the album almost seemed to threaten to take flight, yanking the listener skywards with it (check ‘Renata’ or ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’ on a decent pair of headphones for the full effect), yet tracks like ‘Blackpool Late Eighties’ sat comfortably within electronic music’s rich history, evoking Kraftwerk’s sonic luminescence. I was obsessed with the album for years; time and again it rewarded the effort put in.

While The Inheritors sounds like one man’s exploration of what’s possible in the recording studio, The Animal Spirits sounds like the collective work of a feral gang – music conjured up by the kind of band you’d catch playing the after party for the burning of the Wicker Man. When I first started making notes for this review, I scribbled down the description ‘naked hippy music’ – a month or so of repeated plays and that definition still sits pretty well. It’s elemental and unbound, daubed in colour, flying its freak flag high.

Mining a rich vein of discomfiting ’70s small screen nostalgia similarly explored by the brilliant minds behind Ghost Box, The Animal Spirits feels like an electronic record that’s left the dancefloor at Fabric and just kept on going. The overriding impression of its destination is a place of mud and fire, psychedelics and full-throttle abandon, incantation and perspiration. The first full-length track (‘Spinning Dance’) builds around a folkish vocal modulation, the kind of thing one might hear around the campfire in Glastonbury’s Healing Fields at 4am. Within two minutes, it’s a chaotic melange of voices, stuttering percussion, flute and – most importantly – gut-punching sub-bass. To use more Glastonbury terminology, by the end of the track you’ve been dragged through the far reaches of Shangri-La, through Block 9 and you’re watching the sunrise surrounded by helium-huffers in the Stone Circle.

It’s a pattern that continues throughout the record’s nine tracks – from the stargazing interstellar overdrive of the Arkestra-like ‘The Beginning & the End of the World’ to the madly addictive circular rhythms of ‘Thunder Moon Gathering’. All the while, you feel the push and pull between the mechanical precision of techno and trance and the primal, instinctive music of a free festival. It gets you in the head and the stomach and the heart and it’s quite unlike anything else around. 2017 has about eight weeks left to produce a better album. I’m not counting on it.


The Animal Spirits is out on 3 November via Border Community, and is available here.

Robin Turner on Caught by the River/on Twitter