Holden, The Idiots Are Winning

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The hidebound genre known as "progressive house" is hardly the most intellectually ambitious projects in dance music, which makes the title of James Holden's debut album all the more polemic. The young producer and DJ was a rising star in the progressive world until, tiring of its strictures and star structures, he veered off into deep left field with his Border Community label. Unassuming where progressive house is overblown, Idiots clocks in at a mere 41 minutes, showcasing odd experiments in tone and texture rather than the bangers with which Holden made his name.

A techno juggernaut with pillows for wheels.

The majority of the tracks here aren't divorced from dance-music forms; 4/4 is still Holden's forte. But he cleverly undoes the genre's cliches, making molehills out of mountainous buildups and pulverizing snare rolls until they're just particles. Holden's biggest hit was called "A Break in the Clouds," but here everything just feels cloudy, misted over with a fog of sonic detritus that shimmers in the glare of overdriven tubes. Laying down only the most basic foundations — on the opening "Lump," it's a drum machine's pitter-patter underpinning spine-tingling harmonics and a childlike coo — he lets his fingers do the talking, turning knobs and tweaking filters to give the music an unmistakable whiff of real-time play. It might sound like a small thing, but the way his hi-hats open up, growing ragged like torn banners in a storm, is nothing short of thrilling; he finds music in the most modest oscillations. Call it ambient house with teeth — or a techno juggernaut with pillows for wheels.