Holy Other’s debut album Held is a curious straddling of sacral lament and erotic ballad, and its perpetual delight in painting varying musical shades of black is merely a continuation of the tone set by the Manchester producer’s EP With U from last year. Despite being far more cohesive and richer, Held still shares significantly similar timbral ground with its predecessor: the same droning pedal points, shattered vocals and percussive expanse. Holy Other’s expressive textures can seem relentless at times. But Held’s mesmeric quality relies on this use of cavernous oppression.
Held is released via Tri-Angle, also home to Balam Acab and oOoOO, artists who’ve been variously described as a movement exploring the intersections of dubstep and the shadow of witch house. Burial‘s muted textures and ambiguous vocals are repeatedly cited as a reference point. But while Holy Other shares Burial’s hallmarks of bedroom anonymity and the disconnect of the internet, this is not music particularly concerned with the recording of the urban landscape. Held seems far more interested in constructing fragility, romanticism and sensuality.
Vocal motifs are woven through the record, bathed in stuttered rhythms, to create waves and waves of sound that border on liturgy. The immediate effect is one of intense pleading. A clouded backdrop opens (W)here, dashed through with yearning voices and soaked percussion. Minimalist textures and liquid vocals well up on Tense Past as the album gathers pace. From then on, the music expands into a sequence of variations, from the darkened synth colours that form the bed of Love Some1 through to the blocks of dying breath on Nothing Here that bring the album to a close. But the most remarkable moment comes during the title track, as the mantra-like vocals shift from indecipherable incantation towards a defined yearning: “hold me”, all dressed up in a steaming wall of sound.
While the ways in which Holy Other manipulates texture to filter his sound through the blackest of screens are an important part of his musical appeal, it is the slowing down of the music to a porous crawl that forms the most significant aspect of his success. The music works in much the same way as the drugged up, occult culture of the 1990s screw movement – slowing down music as both a minimalist and transformative act. Voices become androgynous, the bass tires, and the impact is both ambiguous and highly sexualised. Screw’s shrouded sounds continue today, particularly in the diseased anthems and iconography of Salem. Similarly, from his performances in pitch darkness with his face veiled, through to the crumpled cover art of With U and Held, Holy Other reinforces an erotic, nocturnal imagery.
A couple of years back the track U Smile 800% Slower, an elongation of Justin Bieber‘s song into a soaring half hour soundscape, went viral. It was the perfect encapsulation of how slowness can unravel the façade of pop culture, revealing something mysterious, dark and unexplored. Held’s seductive immersion points do not require the listener to work hard at all but instead merely follow the gradual expansion of a minimal textural palette into extreme drama and suffocating sonority. The resulting wash of sound makes for an escapist experience par excellence.