You could probably guess what Holy Other's debut album sounds like without ever hearing it. That's not a bad thing. It speaks to both the surprising solidity of the Manchester artist's style and the general ubiquity of this sort of eyes-down, funereal fare. But last year's With U EP managed to stick out like a throbbing thumb amidst all the soft focus dreck and Held accomplishes the same trick in 2012. His first album-length effort isn't a drastic turnaround nor even that great of a leap forward, but it is a whole lot more persuasive, mirroring label mate Balam Acab's turn from monaural to full-splendour stereo with his own Tri Angle LP last year.
"(W)here" picks up right where With U left off: liquid tides splash against a steady pulse that aligns well with UK house, but feels more like a heartbeat than a dance track. That comforting blinker is at the heart of Holy Other's unusually warm and enveloping sound, a 4/4 beat that embraces rather than pierces, with blanketing basslines that only add to the womblike shroud. What's different this time around is the rest of the textures; he prefers the bevelled shine of '90s adult contemporary, sad face electronic music that uses the palette of overwrought power ballads ("Impouring," "In Difference") instead of merely hinting at it. There's a staggered and creaky quality to the way he builds his tracks—"In Difference" sounds like it's struggling with every chord, a vocal melody that trips over itself despite its inherent simplicity.
Held is an even more vocal-heavy record than his earlier work, but these ciphers are almost entirely devoid of language. Holy Other wisely steers clear of the beyond-clichéd R&B appropriation by stretching out gasps and syllables into unnatural, filmy shapes, like the slow-motion implosions of "Love Some1," and especially the strangely piercing vocals of "Tense Past," which unspool in pure agony. Chipmunk squeak is replaced with searing anguish over a bed of sounds folding in on themselves, a crawling rhythm that feels like it's hitting a backwards stroke with every pace. The tension is released with the bookending "Past Tension," which further uncoils the track's samples into an outpouring of resigned sadness.
Despite all the hints at depression, Held is a strangely uplifting record. Indeed, it's almost too easy to become completely enamoured with the very sounds it's employing, rather than the mood it's ostensibly trying to convey. That's made even better by the increased attention to song structure, songs that open up slowly instead of merely repeating patterns. Lead single "Love Some1" has a patient but rewarding climax, "U Now" stumbles around skittish, malfunctioning percussion and the title track dissolves into the album's most gut-wrenching moment, a simple, naked piano breakdown. It's an uncharacteristic moment of clarity on an album that seems composed entirely of floating clouds—a hint that there's another dimension to Holy Other outside of his already familiar world. That said, where he's left us on Held is mighty impressive in itself.
Tracklist: Holy Other - Held 01. (W)here
02. Tense Past
04. Love Some1
05. U Now
06. In Difference
07. Past Tension
09. Nothing Here
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