Bidston Observatory, whose ambiences were recorded by Holy Other (David Ainley) for ‘Lieve’, sits atop a hill on the Wirral Peninsula near Birkenhead in Merseyside. Built in 1866 using limestone quarried from the hill on which it rests, the original purpose of the observatory was to keep perfect time: a double basement and sensitive atmospheric conditions made the structure well-suited for precise adjustments to the chronometers that were used by captains of ships sailing from the British Isles.
In a way, ‘Lieve’, like any music that uses field recordings as part of the compositional process, is also about time. These recordings are unique documents of a specific time and place; they are fleeting, passing moments, yet recording them grants them a certain permanence. They are also highly personal, arising out of a conscious decision to hit record at that precise point. We have no way of knowing what emotions were swirling around in the mind of the recorder, no way of knowing what that person was thinking, no way of knowing what that person heard that appealed so much; we only have the recording.
With ‘Lieve’, the album’s tonality gives a clue to what may have been on Ainley’s mind. There is a sort of painful, aching quality on key track ‘Heartrending’, one that is not necessarily gloomy or pensive, but one that is also not overly optimistic. We can hear what we might come to identify, in years to come, and as distance affords some sense of objectivity, as the sound of lockdown – a sheen of uncertainty, of unsettled feelings, of vague hope, of feeling simultaneously connected and isolated.
These aren’t, then, straightforward electronic compositions. The inclusion of NYX member Sian O’Gorman processed voice is deployed as a splintered, stuttering texture that floats above pieces like ‘Heartrending, ‘Shudder’ and ‘Whatever You Are, You’re Not Mind’, almost as if Ainley had recorded a faltering solo recital rehearsal through a broken church window. ‘Absolutes’ has a grandiosity in its heavy, sparse drum sequence and a brooding melody, but that melody is warped and non-linear, giving rise to a queasy feeling of restlessness. ‘Up Heave’ – featuring contemplative saxophone from Daniel Thorne – includes strange fades, like when the song you’re listening to on your phone suddenly fades away as a call comes in.
‘Lieve’ is not an immediately easy listen, yet a distinct, if muted, hopefulness emerges on ‘Groundless’, which is nudged along on a pretty, beatific half-melody; that same sense of hopefulness rises out of the classical arrangements on ‘Refuse’ and persists through to the album’s conclusion. As the final moments of ‘Bough Down’ play out, Ainley’s sleight-of-hand in The sequencing of his second Holy Other album is revealed, leaving the listener experiencing a cautious fragility and subversive, timeless sense of purpose.
Words: Mat Smith
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