Of late, I haven’t been getting into the retro prog rock sound all that much. I’m sure those of you who follow the Facebook page are aware of that. But there are certain artists in that subgenre that do make me revisit the sound a few times per year, and one of them is John Holden. His new album “Circles in Time” releases on March 26th, and I think it may be his best yet.
John is an artisan. He appreciates exquisite, classically inspired melodies, gravy vocal performances, and the odd saxophone solo or two. His albums are a solo effort wherein John handles guitar, bass, keys, and orchestration, yes, but he always manages to recruit some truly wonderful guests, too. For this album, I’m sure you will recognize many of them: Robin Armstrong, Marc Atkinson, Zaid Crowe, Oliver Day, Nick D’Virgilio, Frank Van Essen, Peter Jones, Sally Minnear, Jean Pageau, Eric Potapenko, That Joe Payne, Henry Rogers, and Elizabeth Holden. You will hear the one and only Jeremy Irons on some narration, as well as Vikram Shankar of Redemption and Lux Terminus. Vikram actually provides keys and piano on every track, so his guest spot here is rather substantial.
John’s music is definitely inspired by 70s and 80s progressive rock, but there is an abiding sense of class, precision, and humility in his compositions that keeps me interested. Delicate orchestrations are a main stay on this album, especially the cinematic final track, and you will hear plenty of sax, viola, violin, mandolin, and other instruments that add a sense of novelty, folk inspiration, and overall elegance. His style is pastoral, and it just sounds so warm and inviting.
His albums are typically full of songs that each tell their own story, many of them historically based. This album follows in that path, but some of the tracks are more about social issues, such as opinions in this overly opinionated age or the feelings of travelling in a circle when dealing with physical illness; another is about the feelings within a memory at the High Line in New York with his wife. Another track is about the tragic murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in Chapel Field Hunsterston, and the lengths to which the murderer went to escape conviction. Other tracks celebrate flamenco music and Egyptology. John rivals Steve Hackett in his exploration of humanities and cultures.
John’s albums are always a fun journey, one that is beautiful and uplifting. My favorite tracks on this record are “High Line”, “The Secret of Chapel Field”, and “KV62”. “High Line” features Peter Jones on vocals and sax, and thus you know it will have incredible vocals and a soulful sax performance that simply mesmerizes. “The Secret of Chapel Field” is a sadder track, one full of mystery, and Marc and Sally give us a gorgeous duet. The song makes me wonder about the poor girl who was killed: what she was thinking and what she experienced. The song does a great job of mixing sorrow with beauty. Now, “KV62” is a 20-minute epic to end the album, but it is highly orchestral. Parts of it even remind me of Vangelis and his albums from the 80s. The song itself transitions many times, from mysterious ancient sounds to the roaring 20s to modern classical. It has a bit of everything, and Peter Jones once again offers amazing vocals here. I should mentioned, also, that Vikram’s piano is amazing on this track.
John has outdone himself quite literally here. I love the orchestrations, novel song structures, and the meaningful lyrics. While this type of pastoral prog might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is undeniable that this album is beautiful and enriching to the soul. I hope listeners will give it a try.
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