Drop the needle at any given point on James Holden’s fourth album, and you might think the music is building toward carefully orchestrated catharsis: the moment when the big melody finally drops in, or the various rhythms cohere into a single body-moving lockstep, and the crowd loses its collective mind. There were plenty of those moments in Holden’s earlier work, when he was a young DJ making sweeping trance and progressive techno anthems. But time and time again on Imagine This Is a High Dimensional Space of All Possibilities, the climax turns out to be an illusion. A filter sweep reaches its apex to reveal the full glowing resonance of a particular synth, and you realize the pulse of its chord progression has been working at cross purposes with the rest of the track, pulling you away from its patient groove rather than toward it. A strobe-lit rave piano arrives just in time for the drums to drop out entirely.
Holden has said that the album is his attempt to recreate the sense of hearing, as a teenager, far-off pirate radio broadcasts of early UK dance music, the soundtracks to a woolly and utopian rave scene that had largely dried up by the time he was old enough to make music professionally and had to settle for more slickly commercial sounds. Thematically, this is not so different from the territory where Burial has made his career, summoning the atmospheres of emptied-out warehouse parties and solitary walks home. Rather than mourning a paradise lost, Holden instead focuses on the joy and freedom his younger self imagined those ravers must have been feeling. Every individual sound is as bright and welcoming as can be. It’s the way that these sounds cohere—or more often, refuse to—that suggests a certain distance. The album’s new-agey title may provoke eye rolls in some listeners, but the first word poignantly grounds it. If we have to imagine that this is a place where everything is possible, it probably isn’t in reality.
By the time of Holden’s first album, 2006’s The Idiots Are Winning, he was already dislodging himself from the club; his third, 2017’s The Animal Spirits, looked like a final break, with Holden leading a full live band on excursions into free jazz and Terry Riley-ish minimalism. His full-lengths have also reflected a growing interest in oblique, free-flowing rhythms, seemingly inspired by the unpredictable complexity of the natural world rather than the mechanistic precision of much dance music. While High Dimensional Space on one level represents a return to the timbres of clubland, it retains this organic sensibility. Acoustic instruments like saxophone and tabla punctuate “Common Land” and “Contains Multitudes,” respectively. The latter also plays with your expectation that the sounds of electronic dance music will stick to their own narrowly defined bands of the frequency range and roles in the larger arrangement. One particular keyboard ostinato begins in the middle, and traverses down to sub-bass depths and up to piercing heights over the course of the track. Listening closely is like watching a time lapse of a tree’s roots bursting through the sidewalk.
The quality of the rhythms across the album, each developing concurrently at its own pace rather than in strict alignment, mirrors the fragmentary timelines of nature as well. “Trust Your Feet” comes tantalizingly close to ecstatic release, its arpeggios percolating onward past the juncture where they might have locked in with the other instruments to deliver a satisfying payoff. Witnessing waterfalls and sunsets, there’s no single perfect moment when all the elements come together and make their mysterious relationships clear; this music works similarly, absorbing you in the whole of its trajectory rather than any specific waypoint.
The lack of definitive resolutions can make the album at times difficult to really love, rather than just appreciate or admire, despite the music’s unflagging optimism. The rare moments when everything does come together are the ones that move me the most: the tumbling snare drum and burbling modular synth of “Continuous Revolution,” rushing together toward a horizon we never quite glimpse; the droning violins and unexpectedly funky bass guitar of “Worlds Collide, Mountains Form,” which sound a bit like what might happen if the ancient architects of Stonehenge decided to form a jam band. In between these set pieces, the full enjoyment of Imagine This Is a High Dimensional Space of All Possibilities requires some imagination of your own, a sort of listening past the vaporous surface of the music. Like teenage Holden at the radio, you may sense a magical world there, just beyond what you can hear.
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