Held, the debut full-length from mysterious Manchester-based producer Holy Other, starts with a low rumble – keep this at the forefront of your mind. It marks the beginning of a carefully constructed sense of unease that permeates even the most soothing moments of Held. It’s a mood that the anonymous producer cultivates on multiple levels; from his unwillingness to reveal his name or visage through to the murky textures he explores, to the record’s enigmatic artwork, the idea of simultaneous romance and fear in the unknown is a powerfully deployed one.
It’s this balance between sweet and sickness, though, that marks much of what Held is all about. Be it the funereal call and response of faintly murmuring seraphs in opener ‘(W)here’ or the dented piano chords that enter towards the end of the title track, evoking a finely cut balance between gothic romanticism and power balladry, there’s a definite dichotomy afoot.
With a title like Held, it’s all too easy to jump to swift conclusions about the thought processes here. As a title, it implies being both subdued and supported, restrained and yet comforted; contradictions that could easily be applied to love and relationships.
But is Held a record about love? True, portions of it are serene and sensual – see the high-pitched manipulated coos and reverb-laden handclaps of ‘Tense Past’ which recall Holy Other’s Tri-Angle labelmate Balam Acab – but these are always counterpointed by a sense of dread that never allows for any real relaxation. If this is an album with anything to do with love, it’s one about the darker side of affection, the ugly things we do to keep those we care about close to us.
Loneliness is also present in abundance on Held. ‘Inpouring’, with its angelic siren calls and ghostly echoes set to a backdrop of clicks and found sounds immediately calls to mind the sense of urban isolation so definitively portrayed by Burial in the last six years or so. ‘Love Some1’ carries on this atmospheric inner-city dread through its gritty beats and sustained 90s hip-hop strings.
While musically, Held does little to differentiate Holy Other from a sea of similar bedroom producers and his Tri-Angle peers, the way in which he approaches the record as an overarching concept is enough to make for interesting listening. Viewed together, its nine tracks compose an arc of loneliness, dread and – dare I say it – love, that manages to be both endearing and disturbing in equal measure. In either situ, Held is unquestionably haunting and you’ll certainly want to revisit it looking for answers in its misty expanses and derelict streets.