Bob Holroyd :: Beach Combing
[soundscape music]   review from douglas heselgrave  

It's unlikely that Brian Eno had any idea of the can of worms he was opening when he described the new sounds he'd conjured for his 1975 album, 'Discreet Music' as ambient. In the more than three decades that have passed since that landmark record, the genre has exploded (if one can use such a dramatic word for a style of music that is often described as unobtrusive and atmospheric) into several fragmentary sub-genres such as organic ambient, industrial ambient, ambient dub and ambient house. It would be convenient to be able to slot the work of the veteran British composer Bob Holroyd into one of those categories, but thankfully his work is simply too diverse and individualist to be easily pegged. His newly released CD, Beachcombing is perhaps his best and most challenging work to date and is a worthy successor to 2009's RE:lax and RE:act albums.

The album opens rather inauspiciously with "Glow" — a track whose mood is established with the kind of Harold Budd piano minimalism counterpointed by gentle synthesiser washes that wouldn't have been out of place on 'The Plateau of Mirror' or any number of Budd-Eno collaborations from the early eighties. It is a pleasant enough track that insinuates itself delicately, causing shoulders to droop and muscles to uncord themselves. If the rest of the songs on the record had contented themselves to progress in this vein, Holroyd would have concocted an enjoyable, though unremarkable record that people could turn to in times of stress or reflection. But, thankfully, Holroyd had other ideas up his sleeve and 'Glow' serves primarily as a preparatory track or 'tenderizer' for things to come.

The title track, 'Beachcombing' comes next and like its predecessor it is primarily a reflective piece offset by spacious live piano. It is lovely as well as alternately moody and uplifting. By the halfway mark of the piece, voices can be heard drifting in the background, seemingly chasing the far off flute, cello and offhand snatches of acoustic guitar. There are too many questions posed by the music for it to veer into the new age territory that is occasionally suggested by the structures of the melody. The following 'Weak Winter Sun' explores similar territory that nevertheless continues to expand on the aural canvas Holroyd that captured his interest this time out.

The real payoffs start to arrive with 'Sacred Light', the fourth track on 'Beachcombing' as Holroyd deftly mixes sacred chant, tablas and other percussive accents to achieve an intricately composed ambient mandala that uplifts and soothes at the same time. Still, anyone who was hoping to drift through 'Beachcombing' in a state of blissful chill has a few surprises in store by the time ' Collector of Souls' comes around. Right from the start, the synthesiser textures that Holroyd has employed as the constant knitting the disparate tracks together have taken on darker hues, the percussion isn't loud at the start, but it is insistent. A dark blast, reminiscent of Jon Hassel's treated trumpet or a Tibetan sacred horn rip through the heart of the melody, shaking whatever paradigms of meditative calm one may have been cultivating up until this point. Spiritual practitioners may want to fast forward this one. For the rest of us, it serves as a poignant reminder of the crass reality that exists beyond earshot and that the somnolent sense of comfort ambient music can provide is momentary at best.

Other notable tracks include 'Renewal' that subtly demands close listening. Is the opening drone a muezzin, a call to prayer or a slackly vibrating oud string? Holroyd's piano once again threatens to carry the listener off into a new age fantasy that is curtailed by whirls, clock springs unwinding and an undertone that is just harsh enough to keep one's attention as well as the artist's musical integrity intact. The slow dance crowd should find the understated dub groove of 'Beautiful Domination' completely satisfying as late period Miles styled horns dance in and out of the ambient clouds that Holroyd drifts through the mix. This track - as well as 'Samsara' - provide the best examples of the areas in which Holroyd excels — specifically the ability to compose and record music that operates on a number of different levels. On the surface, his melodies and the structures of his compositions are simple, direct and leave little left unsaid. But, attend to the sounds coming from two or three levels lower in the mix and the listener encounters some very down and dirty grooves that seem to slip under the back door of our listening faculties. Liquid ripples of sounds morph revealing drum and bass undertones. But, just start thinking that an understated dance beat is going to define a track and Holyroyd pulls back to let the cello and synth do the talking again.

As noted at the beginning of this review, choosing an ambient record can be a tough decision — it's often hard to know what you're buying. If you're like me, you've purchased dozens of CDs that loosely fall under the ambient category only to be numbed, bored or agitated by what you're listening to. 'Beachcombing' is the best kind of ambient album that creates a relaxing framework, yet doesn't require one to leave his or her critical faculties at the door. Bob Holroyd has created a very worthwhile and engaging album that is certainly worth a listen.

ethnotechno rating: 3.5 out of 5
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  1. Glow (pick)
  2. Beachcombing (pick)
  3. A Weak Winter Sun
  4. Sacred Light (pick)
  5. Collector of Souls
  6. Mill Pond
  7. Parallels
  8. Renewal
  9. A Stone Left Unturned
  10. Beautiful Domination
  11. Samsara
  12. Hope (pick)