This instrumental and ambient album, brilliantly-pitched as a successor to Mark Hollis’s latter Talk Talk work, is more than a tribute.
Label: self-released (https://heldbytrees.com/music)
Time: 8 tracks / 38 mins
I cannot cover this sensibly without reference to Talk Talk, so a quick recap for those not in the know...
Every album this band made plotted a dot on a fairly straight line through musical styles. Starting as a pop act in the early ‘80s, alongside mullet-headed groups like Duran Duran and The Teardrop Explodes, Talk Talk gave hints of their direction, in that while they had one foot in the singles charts, they exuded a sensibility that drew older, album-oriented listeners to their music. Their second album It’s My Life maintained the synth-pop swagger on opener “Dum Dum Girl,” but was definitely maturing, with an understated melancholy and a soul-stirring intensity on the title track.
Their peak came on third album Colour of Spring, which featured major successes “Life's What You Make It" and "Living in Another World." Out went the synth and pop in favour of more organic instruments and enough improvisation in the studio to make the album recording process last a year. A couple of glacially slow tracks like “April 5th” were dull in the context of this album, but dropped hints of what was to come.
The fourth release, the commercial failure Spirit of Eden, became the ‘marmite’ album that divided fans. Those who preferred the poppier, ‘easy’ material dropped away, but those who remained found the release to be a slow-burning slab of genius. Famously recorded over a huge amount of time, a lot of guests were brought into the dark studio to put down several versions of their parts, which were then stitched together by front-man / writer Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Green. The sonically textured, atmospheric and chilled result – albeit with highly intense sections – was so different to other music available, that it is generally considered to be one of the founding and most seminal pieces of a new genre: post-rock.
Final album Laughing Stock continued the direction, although to these ears, it was just a weaker version of its predecessor.
David Joseph’s Held by Trees bravely involves a good number of the players from these latter albums, such as Robbie McIntosh, Martin Ditcham and legendary producer Phil Brown, and creates a homage to Hollis by taking Joseph’s initial musical ideas and improvising around them in a similar way to the Talk Talk process (but without the prolonged recording time and the dim studio).
Importantly, Joseph didn’t want to step too far on Hollis’s toes, so avoided the possible overkill of involving harmonica player Mark Feltham, whose work was an integral part of Talk Talk’s latter sound. Instead he brought in other, better-known musicians, such as Dire Straits co-founder Dave Knopfler, Pink Floyd’s touring guitarist Tim Renwick and blues journeyman Eric Bibb.
While I feel the need to mention tracks by name, that’s not really how Solace works. Rather, it’s a mood piece that rises, falls and rises again. Unlike Hollis’s work, this is instrumental throughout.
A very ambient and beautifully sparse beginning, “Next to Silence” begins to wind up the project, but is largely chords hanging, the spaces between them playing their part.
Following it, “In the Trees” has Talk Talk off to a tee. The chord sequence isn’t that complicated, but the atmosphere around it really honours the band. It feels like improvisation around the chords and the casually metronomic drum work. “Rain after Sun” continues the pace, mood and style almost seamlessly, even though Robbie McIntosh’s dobro gives way to David Knopfler's guitar. Towards the end, mix engineer Steve Smith’s organ swells adding more emotion, the building texture aided by some discreet saxophone.
“Wave Upon Wave” keeps the mood, while turning away from the Talk Talk sound for a bit. Eric Bibb’s reverbed acoustic guitar leads in over field recordings of waves, and at the end it’s piano that takes over, still thin and scrubby.
Possibly the only misstep is “An Approach,” a solo piece by project coordinator David Joseph, who majors on harmonium here, adding some light guitar work. The denser sound of harmonium takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a short piece and adds a bit of variety.
This sets up the final three tracks, which have a more ’deliberate’ feel. Tim Renwick takes the lead guitar part on “The Tree of Life” and plays out Joseph’s claim to be influenced by early ‘70s Floyd as well as Hollis. You sense it as soon as the tremolo arm kicks in at the start. As the track ends, Gary Alesbrook’s trumpet does for this album what moody sax does for Floyd’s sound. “Mysterium” returns to the Talk Talk vibe, with piano chords and guitar licks floating in the air for a long time, like mist struggling to disperse. It says something about the project’s cohesion that the guitar on closer “The New Earth” (the title the only clue to Joseph’s faith) has as many Dire Straits-like moments as Knopfler’s work on the previous track (and by 'Dire Straits', I'm thinking more of his brother's solo work).
And that cohesion is important: it’s not really crucial how these tracks break down; the mood of the whole is what counts. This feels quite unique as an approach. It’s part-tribute, part solo album, part concept project - and always more than any individual one of those.