Tuesday 31 January 2023

Solstice - Light Up (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Nov 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

It's the last day of January and so I'm drawing a line between 2022 and 2023 after this review. From here until the rest of the year, I'll be focused only on new 2023 releases and, whatever else I might have missed from the past year will stay missed. And that's why I'm listening to Solstice, because I was blown away by Sia at the tail end of 2020, so much that it was my Album of the Month and one of only ten 9/10s that year. This continues their fourth phase with Andy Glass accompanied by Jess Holland on vocals and Jenny Newman on violin, who shape the band's sound, and the same line-up as last time out.

That sound is a little different here, but rooted in the same prog and folk worlds. The keyboards of Steven McDaniel are more prominent than Glass's guitar and Newman's violin, though he's rarely soloing. He's creating ambience to be enriched by Robin Phillips's bass and Pete Hemlsey's drums, but especially by Holland's vocals. That's the mindset here: set the scene and let Holland define it, with Newman and especially Glass sitting aside waiting for a moment to step in and elevate.

For a band who are so drenched in folk music—and it doesn't need the violin on Mount Ephraim or the harp and sitar that kick off Bulbul Tarang to underline that—there's a lot of jazz in play here. The title track kicks off the album as much jazz fusion as prog rock, though Holland's voice remains prominent, blocking us from seeing this as an instrumental workout. Wongle No. 9 follows suit and finds some glorious balances: it's very loose but careful; it's funky but smooth. Bulbul Tarang tries jazz too but isn't ready to give up the folk or indeed the prog, so it's a less obvious example.

I liked every track here and, after a few times through, they're soaking into my skin so I can carry them around with me. Mount Ephraim is the one that stuck first, courtesy of that folky violin, but Run is the immediate standout. It's such a delicate piece that I was afraid of breaking it simply by moving in my chair while it was playing. The drums are soft and electronic, a beautiful sample of glitch. The vocals are tender and layered beautifully, occasionally weaving amidst themselves. It's as effortlessly calm as the unbroken sheen of a still lake.

It grows though. It ramps up at the five minute mark, albeit only to gentle violin. It ramps up again thirty seconds later, with Glass's guitar searing out of the peace. I can't recall any driving force of a band taking such a back seat as he does here but, when he feels the urge, he steps in with a solo that speaks directly to our souls. It doesn't even have to be a long solo, like the brief one early in the second half of Bulbul Tarang to temporarily spear the calm.

He returns soon enough with more but it's obvious that he has impact even when he's not playing. I love those guitarists—and it does tend to be guitarists—who speak volumes with the notes they don't play just as much as the ones they do. That's only one reason I hear a lot of Dave Gilmour in Glass's work here and on Sia. The almost liquid tone they share is another.

Run leads us into Home, which is a memorable track too, because it's the one most reminiscent of others. Solstice have found their own way in music so emphatically that, even when I catch a mere glimpse of this band or that artist, it's gone again. They're so clearly them. However, Home does remind us of other musicians, generally those who cross the border between pop and rock for fun, but do so with imagination and very deliberate craft. I'm thinking people like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, along with Dave Gilmour, though there's also some Suzanne Vega in Holland's voice here and the bass/drum combo that kicks it off is a calm take on Police's Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.

All in all, this didn't floor me the way Sia did but, having heard that, I was kind of prepared for this follow-up, the band's seventh album. It still drew me in though, quickly and effectively, and yet I'm still finding new depths on a fourth or fifth listen. It's another peach from Solstice.

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