by Geoff Bailie
It’s no reflection on the band or their music but my guess is that Solstice might be a name unfamiliar to many readers of this site. But… that’s something I suggest you remedy!
The band itself has its roots in the UK in the 1980s, featured at the legendary Marquee Club, and appeared on BBC Radio sessions. The website tells of a 1982 gig attended by a then 15 year old Steven Wilson, a fan of Marillion, the band they were supporting that evening, and in more recent years, Wilson has remixed some of their early recordings.
Centered around guitarist Andy Glass, the 1980s burst of activity yielded one album and lots of gigs, before a hiatus until the 1990s. Another long break until 2010, was followed by Spirit (2010) and Prophecy (2013). But the current line up really came together in 2020 with the release of the Sia album, to which Light Up is the follow up.
History lesson over, let’s talk about the band today. Wikipedia’s designation of “neo-progressive, folk rock band” really doesn’t do it for me! The constituent parts are Jess Holland whose sparkling vocals are front and centre; Andy Glass’s guitar technique is superb, with the melodic touch of Gilmour blending with the technical prowess of Holdsworth; the rhythm section of original drummer Peter Helmsley and Robin Phillips provide a solid underlay to everything that’s going on; the “folk” is no doubt an adjective added due to Jenny Newman’s violin, which brings a celtic edge to the music; and finally Steve McDaniels’ keyboard add both texture plus a lead foil for Glass’ guitar. Andy Glass also writes all of the material, produces, mixes and masters it… and sonically the album is very strong!
“Light Up”, the title track, kicks the album off with Holland’s multitracked harmonies, an intricate almost jazz like time signature, and Glass’s guitar to the fore – it’s a great sound. After an acoustic interlude, the song shifts to an almost funky end section, which the violin joins, leading to a reprise of the opening guitar figures in the new context. The strangely titled “Wongle No 9” is next, with another funky opening, and some incredible soloing. The song plays out with an almost jam-like feel as the band ride the dynamics of the groove. “Mount Ephraim” is propelled by a violin figure around which the song forms. For this and the previous songs, the vocals here are very complimentary – the style isn’t story telling or conceptual lyrics. The closest comparison I could make would be to the role Jon Anderson plays in Yes, where his vocals feature and take the centre, but yield when the music takes over.
The first significant change of pace is on “Run”, which is a more traditional slower song format. The sensitivity of Jess Holland’s vocals here are superb, with looping phrases from throughout the song appearing at different points – it’s really beautiful. In the closing section, the low violin tones sound almost like a wind instrument, before Andy Glass joins violin and keys for the closing musical work out. As the song rises to its conclusion, Jess’s vocals and harmonies soar – incredible! The following “Home” picks up the lyrical theme of the preceding track, with many wonderful moments. I hate to draw comparisons, but I would say that fans of the eclectic styles of, say, Big Big Train, will find a comparable breadth of textures in this album.
“Bulbul Tarang” is another shift, as Eastern, almost sitar like tones, drive the song with the violin joining in a sympathetic style. Google tells me that the song’s title is the name of a Punjabi stringed instrument, which itself is derived from a Japanese instrument – and those influences definitely feature. This is my standout track on the album, as the influences and images of the natural world feature in the lyrics. Almost five minutes in, the song shifts, with some superb jazz piano, a lyrical guitar solo, and layered harmonies, plus the vocals of Chris Sampson adding a nice contrast in the powerful closing section. I can really see this one being on my Songs of the Year list for 2023!
You may not have noticed, but Prog Magazine’s 2022 Readers’ Poll featured Solstice as a Top 10 band, Glass as a Top 5 Guitarist, and Jess Holland as a Top 5 vocalist. As a new found investigator of this band, I can see why they reached that conclusion! I love “Album length albums” (collections of songs that last for the 45 to 50 minute mark) and “Light Up”’s 44 minutes make it a strong “start to finish” listen – plus there is lots of musical depth and breadth to this album. If you’re a fan of the melodic side of prog, I suggest you acquaint yourself with it right away. Me? I’m off to see what I’ve missed in the back catalogue over the last 40 years!
Released on November 6, 2022
1. Light Up (5:39)
2. Wongle No. 9 (7:14)
3. Mount Ephraim (5:59)
4. Run (8:14)
5. Home (6:42)
6. Bulbul Tarang (10:24)
Total Time 44:12
Line-up / Musicians
Andy Glass / guitar, vocals
Jenny Newman / violin
Pete Hemsley / drums
Jess Holland / vocals
Robin Phillips / bass
Steven McDaniel / keyboards, vocals