Thankfully, I chose to listen to; (for the first time), Light Up, in the morning. I wrote the review from that wonderful listening perspective. I did it because this wonderful album sounds like a bright, morning wake-up call. A soft, simple awakening to a summer or spring day; (even though it’s winter, as I write this review). Light Up, will be released January 13th, 2023; and it follows in the footsteps of Solstice’s very successful release, Sia, from 2020.
Solstice is not a new band. They have been around since, founder Andy Glass, who plays lead guitar, assembled the band in 1980, with violinist Marc Elton. But the band has a new sound and a relatively new voice, that of Jess Holland, on lead vocals, (she joined in 2020). Jess recently was voted amongst the top Female Vocalist of 2022, from Prog Magazine’s Reader’s Poll. Jenny Newman, plays a mean fiddle and violin; Peter Hemsley, plays explosive drums; Steven McDaniel, plays amazing keyboards and Robin Phillips, plays bass.
Light Up is a wonderful album to review as a first album of 2023. It will be a great year, if more of the releases that I expect this year, will fulfil expectations, as well as Solstice have with Light Up.
This band begins with one of the best voices from across the Atlantic. Jess sings, the title track, “Light Up”, “Let the morning in and the day begin. Wash the night away. There’s a place in here. She will keep you near. Don’t look the other way. Let the new light in. And begin again. Find another way. Here’s a place to start. Listen to your heart. See a brighter day. Give your heart away”. What a wonderful way to start a new year, eh? I think so. Love this song. Already one of my favourites for the early new year.
Solstice, was also voted one of the top progressive bands on 2022, by that same Prog Magazine Reader’s Poll. And it is no wonder. They are a dynamic band of musicians which provide a jazzier, Canterbury style of prog, which is simply amazing. Andy Glass, looks and at times sounds like one of my favourite guitarists, Steve Howe, of Yes, and Jenny Newman, on fiddle and violin, make this band, one to be reckoned with, for the future of progressive rock music. And, even though this is an EP, the tracks are long enough and full of enough beautiful music, to make this compilation fit well within the composition of most of the classic and modern progressive albums that you may already know, own, and love.
“Wongle No. 9”, is no “Bungle in the Jungle”. Instead, it’s what might happen if Yes was to play alongside Steely Dan, live. Truly inspirational in every way. Absolutely powerful jazz prog. You can dance to it. When was the last time you could say that about prog? I can definitely hear in this music, how this band was so successful on the festival circuit this past summer, with songs like this one. Andy’s cutting electric guitar soloing, Jenny Newman’s ripping violin solo, Jess Holland’s clear vocals. Peter Hemsley’s perfect drum beat, and Steven McDaniel’s radiant keyboards, keep this musical train running at top speed. Speaking of Yes, Robin Phillips, brings back memories of Chris Squire on bass. Such a great follow up to the title track and EP opener.
Then, they hit you with, Jenny Newman, coming at you full speed with fiddle, the likes of which, you probably haven’t heard since Charlie Daniels’, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”; which lit up the amps and speakers, back in the 1970s. “Mount Ephraim”, also has some fantastic bass fun from Robin Phillips, who keeps good pace with Newman and Hemsley’s solid drum beat. McDaniel’s adds some soft keys along with Glass’ guitar soloing. Jess sings around midway through this instrumental extravaganza. She takes the song higher and adds words to this wonderful fiddle symphony. A beautiful symphony of sound that just takes you over.
“Run”, is absolutely not what you were expecting from that title. After all this cool, relaxing music, I don’t think anyone wants to run. But that is not what Jess and the band are talking about here. In fact, it is a confident, calm statement that if you call, Jess will come…running…home. A beautiful keyboard and solo guitar statement, with Newman’s violin and soft drumming. Beautiful, and so wonderfully calming. Keep this one near, with a glass of wine and soft light, at the end of the evening. After all the work, or the things that you do during the day; sit back, relax and enjoy this song.
“Home”, is another wonderful instrumental journey for the band, with Jess’ soft vocals adding to the sound. Home is where everyone’s heart is, and the band knows it to be true. This song encompasses everything we all appreciate about where we love to live. Wherever that is. We all wish we were going home. Another wonderful Glass and Newman soloing experience. Just sit back and let them dazzle you again!
“Bulbul Tarang”, “is a string instrument from Punjab, which evolved from the Japanese taishōgoto, which likely arrived in South Asia in the 1930s”. Andy Glass uses it to full extent on this exquisite piece of music, to close the album. The harp-like sounds at the opening immediately remind you of some of the wonderful music off one of your favourite Yes albums. But this innovation is Glass’ and Solstice, at their best. However, the comparisons are fair. This song sounds like something that Jon Anderson, Steve Howe and Chris Squire may have thought of; and that is meant only as a compliment. However, Newman’s violin adds an Eddie Jobson-like feel to the atmospheric sound. Jess, at times, sounds like Jon Anderson on say “Onward”, or something off Tormato, Jon’s solo albums, or the ones with Vangelis. What a beautiful way to close this album. Steven McDaniel, finally gets front stage, with a beautiful, soft, piano solo. I wish it was longer, but as Pete Townshend sings, sometimes, “a little is enough”.
Light Up is already one of my, early year, favorite, prog albums. There is a lot more to come this year, but Solstice has grabbed my ears early. This should definitely make my top 10 Prog albums of the year. Everything you could want and imagine out of a progressive rock album. Blistering, Hackett/Howe-like guitar solos, keyboards that melt your heart, great bass and drums, and a wonderful voice…as well as something more. Something that you didn’t expect. Violin to make you want to come back for more. Not Kansas-like violin. A unique and music enhancing violin sound.
Please, run, don’t walk, to get on the list, like me, to pre-order this album. Only one week to wait.
Way to kick off 2023, Solstice! I’m in. You just made another fan. Please hop on the train early and enjoy this album all year long.
Cheers! Happy New Year!
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!
Back in late 2020, Solstice joyously re-emerged onto the music scene with their most uplifting album, Sia, just at the time the World needed a tonic from the ravages and lockdowns of Covid-19. When I reviewed that album, there were huge difficulties for bands to take their music beyond the shores of the UK due to Brexit; I’m not sure that much – if anything – has changed there, but some bands have thankfully found a way, including Solstice. So 2020 was a great year generally for music production from home studios, and the momentum seems to have continued apace.
I’ll be straight with you: I have been an avid follower of Solstice since their early days, even before their debut album Silent Dance was issued in 1984, and I’ve seen all their incarnations. We’re all a bit older now; for me, and for many, three times older at the last count. Silent Dance was an extraordinarily good debut, gaining the attention of Steven Wilson, but their subsequent work did not get as much attention as it deserved. That lack of enthusiasm is now a distant memory, and if you thought that Sia was Solstice finding its sweet spot, well, that sweet spot has just got a whole lot sweeter with the up-coming release of their follow-up, Light Up.
Two years in the making as the band cement themselves together into a cohesive whole, in particular allowing vocalist Jess Holland to thrive, this new album is pure joy which, in the words of Prog Magazine editor Jerry Ewing “evokes the spirit of the band I first saw in the ’80s, but with very much a here and now production sound and brings with it the wisdom of those ensuing years”. Jerry is bang on the money…
As if that wasn’t enough, the illustrious Greg Spawton of Big Big Train also gives the album a ringing endorsement, judging it to potentially be the band’s “best album yet”. Who is going to argue with that?
Six tracks, all a juicy length with one trademark epic, with funk, folk, prog, guest performers, solos galore, and a physical release package that fans will truly love. The artwork complements Sia, also created by Shaun Blake, and includes a heart-rending poem entitled Where the Heart Is from long-standing Solstice collaborator Oz Hardwick. That poem alone warrants purchase of the physical release.
So, on to the music. An album very much of two halves: Andy Glass has said that he had vinyl in mind during its composition with the intent of having ‘sunlit’ and ‘moonlit’ sides. Very Solstice, and a perfect curation of the album, as we have now come to expect from Andy. It opens with Light Up, a hugely uplifting start with Steve McDaniel’s signature keys and a guitar intro from Andy. It’s very funky and how could you possibly resist throwing some shapes?! The mid-section has some fine acoustic guitar, probably courtesy of Jess Holland, followed by a first-rate fiddle solo from Jenny Newman and a sweet-as-cherry-pie chant vocal from Jess. This truly is one of the most joyous songs of 2022. With Robin Phillips’ bass and Pete Hemsley’s drums really prominent, it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.
The funky vibe continues with Wongle No.9; one could imagine this getting the attention of Snarky Puppy or Michael League fans, with Robin’s rhythmic bass line. It’s so good to hear his skills right up front, complemented by Jenny’s settling fiddle/viola section. Wow, there’s even some wah-wah and a keys and drums battle from Steve and Pete; I can’t wait to see the band’s concentration on each other during a live performance of this track. Andy provides a signature guitar solo, sounding almost improv, before returning to the melodic tightness of the whole band. West Coast funk, eat your heart out. “Did we say we’re here to stay” – crikey I hope so!
For the vinyl lovers out there, Mount Ephraim closes Side 1. It’s a homage to the A New Day Festival at Mount Ephraim Gardens in Faversham, and in particular its organiser and promoter Dave Rees. Gig goers will have seen this track demoed as Siren Songduring the 2022 performances. “On the hill by the lake, See the shooting star, As she lights up another New Day, and though we’ve been here before, We come back every time, there’s a sign for us all to gather.” It has huge meaning for those who have seen the band at the Faversham Festival. It’s time for Jenny to take centre stage, providing a reassuring and underlining tune before the vocal section moves into focus. Jess’s vocals are a delight, of course they are, and Steven gets a lovely synth solo, weaving his usual magic throughout this high energy exhilarating song. Catch your breath and flip to Side 2…
The two songs Run and Home go very well together. Run takes the energy level down to create a delicate tune that is so reminiscent of their early work on Silent Dance. It’s a beautiful song for Jess, supported by classic Roland drum programming, before the full band sound builds to a crescendo and rounds off a slightly downbeat anthem; the Roland gives way to Pete’s drum and percussive skills, more smooth vocals and harmonies, with strings and a constant reassuring beat from the rhythm section. Many will cock a snoot at drum machines, but it’s a true delight. With Home, listeners will love the tight drum rhythm from Pete. There is an Irish lilt to the song with Jenny’s fiddle section before being supplemented with Andy’s signature guitar. Do you know what, they are a perfect couple in every way, and Jess’ chants at the end cement a glorious song.
And on to the finale, Bulbul Tarang, a 10-minute epic centring on a Punjabi banjo named a Bulbul Tarang, gifted by Pete to Andy. I’ll leave you to google it… This song will no doubt unite the Solstice fans in the same way as the band is totally united for its performance. It really is anthemic and a piece of genius composition as an album closer. In three parts, the first part draws one in to a smooth middle section, a trademark of the early days of Solstice, before Andy delights with a guitar solo that could compete with Guardian, almost Floydian in approach, only better. But the genius part comes towards the end… A chord change that is a shivering moment – it might even be the best chord change in history, which should get the attention of every musician and music lover alike; the vocals fill the room and the band truly is a cohesive whole. Pure gold, such that I think it would bring a tear to even Andy’s eye…
2021 and 2022 have been great years for Solstice on tour, with gigs and festivals in both the UK and abroad. They are getting huge traction now with a recent and very well received gig in Italy and the promise of some gigs in France and Holland next year. There are a couple of appearances left in 2022, notably an album launch festival in Milton Keynes on 6th November 2022. Light Up does not get a general release until 13th January 2023; what a start to the new year that will be, but if you get yourself to that Milton Keynes gig, you will be able to get an advance CD copy.
Solstice have pulled another bunny out of the bag. It’s chock full of the distinctive characteristics that we have become accustomed to with high energy, emotion, comfort, supreme craftmanship, joy and abandonment. Every musician gets the chance to shine, more so than on any of the previous albums. My recent discussions with Andy indicate that this album is potentially the second in a trilogy, so imagine my delight to know that the journey continues…