holding hands are a new and prolific octet heralding from the UK, combining elements of jazz, free improvisation, post-minimalism, electronics, and field recordings. Their upcoming EP social butterfly, to be released on Sunday 24th April, comprises of three experimental tracks that demonstrate the ensemble’s capabilities and continued musical trajectory. For this short review, I’ll be looking at the final track “the world is broken”; this constitutes the group’s lengthiest work at over 20 minutes, and as a result explores new musical and experiential possibilities.
Opening with a contemplative sax solo, horns and drums slowly filter in, juxtaposed by the muffled sound of children screaming. While seemingly playful alongside the innocuous birdsong, and lyrical melodies atop warm brass textures, the track’s title puts one a little ill at ease, and particularly attentive as to the musical direction. As the vibraphone contributes, and the introduction expands expressively and dynamically, it becomes clear there is a very thoughtful matrimony between the instruments, despite the tempting world as possibilities that such an octet has to offer. The tuba and vibes blend beautifully too, as the opening oscillates gently between two chords, in a slightly lachrymose fashion. The scattering drums as typical in free jazz are again tasteful, injecting further emotion and life into an otherwise dirge-like rhythm.
In the background, we can subtly discern samples that produce a gently otherworldly albeit eerie atmosphere, given the name “the world is broken”. This name reminded me of a biography and analysis on avant-garde group Henry Cow titled ‘The World Is a Problem’. While disparate in its musical material, given holding hands’ more digestible and less visceral approach, there are many similarities in both groups’ proclivities towards free improvisation and a political ethos. Indeed, if Henry Cow were conceived now, this is perhaps the type of music they would be creating.
The piece ebbs and flows wonderfully, as the octet’s configuration is tactfully employed. Even over this sprawling 20-minute track, we experience a simultaneously cohesive and processual, innovative composition – by no means an easy feat. One device I particularly enjoyed was the sax solo’s continuation despite the section’s change, providing us with something to cling to. It is occasionally angular in its melodic gestures and proliferating multiphonics, with some effective Bisbigliando trills thrown in too. Extended techniques are well-incorporated throughout, as are more unusual combinations of instruments, and hypnotic, subtle audio effects.
Midway through the piece, we reach a clean serenity, with wonderful suspensions pervading the horn parts that aren’t overly saccharine, perhaps thanks to their spontaneous, improvisatory nature. The virtuosically quiet horn squeals are musically quite taciturn, but speak volumes when set in the context of the piece, as they give off the impressions of stifled screams. This reminded me of Trevor Wishart’s “Red Bird: A Political Prisoner’s Dream”, where samples continually play with our expectations in a similar manner, except now positioned in a more refined setting. I also hear elements of King Crimson’s artistic, ensemble-driven improvisations throughout the record. The music would certainly be suitable to progressive rock and post-rock and listeners as much as it would to jazz lovers. A reprisal of the opening oscillation in a reimagined light provides further continuity, making you realise the small journey you’ve just passed on. Always slightly unconventional, the rolling 9/8 rhythm here has a slightly delirious, teamed well with sporadic notes that spice up the harmony when necessary, before gently subsided to conclude.
All in all, holding hands have crafted an excellent sound-world that is as accessible and well-paced, as it is experimental and freeform. Each track on the EP has its own merits, but I was particularly drawn to the samples’ ambiguity on “the world is broken”. That said, the composition on the opening track “the social butterfly” acts as an effective counterpoint to the Noam Chomsky samples, and holding hands have proven their ability to contrast stark and abrasive themes with pensive music through the haunting 2021 release “another black death”. In summary, the group have assembled an eclectic array of instruments to produce wonderful soundscapes, serving both as an excellent entry point for both aficionados and newcomers to free improvisation. A group that I will assuredly be following and am eager to watch perform live!
Review by Tom Burgess at Written Records