Since 2018, this composer and multi-instrumentalist has not only been consistently delivering standout albums that I am proud to possess and review, all very highly rated but also because the recipe ingredients and manpower invited happen to vary from album to album. So before delving into the intricacies of this fifth chapter, I invite all those readers still unfamiliar with this Cheshire cat, to travel back into his past 4 albums and discover all the pleasures therein. The bar is set pretty high because the previous “Kintsugi” was a tour de force that earned it my highest praise. Vocalists Sally Minnear and the celebrated Peter Jones are back, not surprising they are stellar performers, as is keyboardist Vikram Shankar. New allies are Luke Machin, a gifted guitarist who seems to be equally prolific, playing on a multitude of recordings, John Hackett needs no intro at all, and Southern Empire’s Shaun Holton sings on a couple of tracks. Lastly, Dave Brons tosses in a couple of bars at the end of the opening track, while Moray MacDonald blows a mean trumpet on one number.

“13” sets the immediate tone for the remainder of the set list, as Holden lays down a solid rhythmic pulse, with snarling bass, solid riffs, and some nice drum programming. Peter Jones grasps the microphone, and his fluid voice is always a delight, delivering that mythical story of how the number 13 is a superstition that will not go away. Friday the 13th, 13 people at a table, open umbrellas, broken mirrors, walking under ladders, black cats, touch wood, and rabbit foot. Poetry for the mind.

We enter epic land with a musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, the lengthiest piece and adventurous as can be, an ideal setting for Shaun to show off his singing skills. The sense of mountainous elevations, imagining the Khyber Pass and Everest beyond, an imperial trumpet announcing the fantasy of soldiers of misfortune wanting to become gods, and rule by force or by will over vast territories of immense riches. The allusion to Alexander the Great also comes through in the cinematographic arrangement. Close your eyes and let the shifting variations induce the imagination to wander. Vikram peels off a nifty synth solo as the final denouement arrives. Gong!

With the piano and the flute ruling the space, “A Sense of Place” has that quintessential pastoral Welsh feel, a lovely instrumental pause, a shimmering ode to tranquility. The title could well have been A Sense of Peace, and no one would have dared a word. Plain beautiful.

With a tale about insane jealousy and competitive revenge, “Burnt Cork and Limelight” has certainly dramaturgical, I daresay, Shakespearean tendencies. The faultless melody is a masterful addition to an arrangement lush with immaculate orchestrations that truly emit a sense of stage music for actors who hide their dark side by pretending to follow the script but desperately seeking to murder their alleged foe. Peter Jones delivers one of his finest deliveries ever, utterly convincing. Applause from the captive audience is the final straw. 10 minutes + of enchanting entertainment.

The subject of recent covert assassinations of defectors in the UK, “Agents” tackles the open-faced gall of sending killers armed with nerve agents to eliminate any threats to the Kremlin’s authority with apparent immunity. The music is suitably anxious, with shadowy figures hiding behind diplomatic immunity, carrying vials of lethal poison, and seeking out their targets.  Luke rips off a cloak and dagger axe rant. Revenge is a bitter pill, tastelessly dropped in a teapot.

A passionate visit to Paris does not mean one can 100% find love, sometimes it’s the exact opposite, a realization that may hurt on the moment but better now than 20 years later. Sally Minnear sings her plight in the City of Light, Notre Dame casting a long shadow, the book vendors on the embankments of the Seine offering fictional non-fiction editions of a love not meant to be. The musical atmosphere is suitably restrained and romantic. L’amour fait mal (Love hurts).

The final two tracks deal with the two choices offered in the title, “Proximity” peering at the Red Planet and simply wondering if it was perhaps a former home once long ago, having had to settle on Earth, to find a more suitable climate. The glorious hymn “Chance “is the segue that tackles the complex notion of ‘what if?’, and ‘who am I?’.  It has a Jon Anderson-Yes positive feel to it that is most uplifting. Within the realm of logic, each person is nothing more than the amalgamation of all the preceding relatives from both ancestral chains, an intricate evolution with no clear starting point unless it was from the universe itself. DNA does not stand for Do Not Admit. All three vocalists join in on the choir, singing a hopeful message, “that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal”. The only absolute is that there is only one sun.

John Holden is a progressive rock force to be reckoned with. Get close and get lucky.

5 Vicinities and risks