Light Up is, as much as anything Solstice have ever released, a comprehensive musical celebration of their own unique furrow, bringing together all of the strands running through their work, and knitting them together into one highly satisfying whole.
There’s something about Solstice which is both magical and yet comforting after all this time. It’s hard to define, but they have always managed to be almost alone within the raft of bands emerging from the neo-prog movement in the early ’80s in the sense of dancing entirely to their own idiosyncratic drum. Even as far back as the first time I saw the band, in 1983, they had an air about them which suggested that they all lived together in a tumbledown cottage in the countryside, playing their music without fear of disturbing any neighbours in between foraging for mushrooms and berries. Not that they did actually exist in some sort of fever dream from Neil out of The Young Ones, of course (or at least, I don’t think they did!), but they always seemed to embody the old hippie ideal of ‘getting it together in the country’ which was so de rigeur with the likes of Traffic at the turn of the ’70s. The music, too, always reflected that, with their cassette-only 1983 release The Peace Tape being a ‘cassette single’ containing the songs New Life and Peace For The New Age. This stuff was absolute manna from heaven for a certain breed of vintage prog fan (guilty!), and from the 1984 debut album Silent Dance right through to this latest release, they have scarcely wandered from that core identity, which is quite remarkable in its way, especially considering the variety of line-ups and incarnations they have been through in those four decades. To paraphrase a saying, they have always given the impression of ‘being in the music business, but not of it’.
Light Up – the follow-up to the ‘comeback album’ of sorts Sia, which had the misfortune to be released during the pandemic – is, as much as anything Solstice have ever released, a comprehensive musical celebration of their own unique furrow, bringing together all of the strands running through their work, and knitting them together into one highly satisfying whole. The opening title track is simultaneously bouncy, upbeat, playful and celebratory, evoking the spirit of their vintage ‘anthem’ New Life absolutely perfectly, yet without actually sounding much like it in a technical sense. It’s perfectly judged to bring the curious traveller into the virtual Solstice Cottage, to celebrate their world along with a host of newly-met close friends, and as such will surely work like a charm as a show-opener. It has all the hallmarks of a modern-day Solstice ‘signature song’, and does its job to perfection. The following almost-instrumental piece, the oddly-titled Wongle No. 9, comes in on a determinedly funky wave, reminiscent of the atmosphere generated by the Ozric Tentacles when they create their own brand of ‘cosmic reggae’. It’s funk, Jim, but not as James Brown knows it. It bobs along in a marvellously loose way, the notes being allowed to breathe by some deceptively clever ensemble playing, before Solstice main man Andy Glass cuts loose from the chilled surroundings with a lengthy fret-burning guitar solo which takes things straight up to another level. Two songs in, and two sides of Solstice already explored, but it’s back to that cupboard of influences for the third track, Mount Ephraim, as Jenny Newman’s violin is featured to its prominent best on what is this time a decidedly Celtic, almost traditional-sounding piece. Folk-prog you might describe it as, but once again it is resolutely and uniquely Solstice. The track itself is a tribute to, and celebration of, the New Day Festival, where Solstice have made some particularly noteworthy appearances in recent years. That third track of six is effectively the ‘Side One closer’ when looking at the album in a vinyl sense, and indeed it is a nice 40-odd minute duration – proving again, after decades of cramming CDs full of music just because it was possible, to be the optimum duration for a single-sitting listen.
What would be ‘Side Two’ in the old money (although increasingly becoming new currency with the resurgence of the vinyl format), we get the eight-minute Run; a relaxed and beautifully melodic and reflective piece, showcasing Jess Holland’s voice to the most effective extent thus far. Once again, the song is given a real lift with another Glass guitar solo (to almost quote Todd Rundgren!), and it seems to belie its length, finishing without ever threatening to outstay its welcome. There’s a little bit of a folk influence up next on the penultimate track Home, a barn-burner of a track which has a tremendous coda featuring Glass and Newman playing together and yet around each other, with the guitar and violin performing a musical dance of quite mesmerising dexterity. They really should get in each other’s way, and the way the avoid ever treading on each others’ toes is a bit like a prog rock Red Arrows Display Team!
All this, however, is leading up to the crowning moment of the album – the closing track Bulbul Tarang. The odd-sounding title in fact refers to a musical instrument sometimes referred to as the ‘Indian Banjo’, which has two sets of strings, for drone and melody respectively, a little like a sitar. It may seem odd taking the title from the instrument, but its influence can clearly be heard in the track itself, especially in the atmospheric opening section. Running to over ten minutes, the piece builds gradually, taking the listener along its sonic journey quite seamlessly, until almost before you know it, the climactic coda is upon you, with its dramatic emotional pomp the perfect closure to a quite beautifully crafted album.
If you’ve followed Solstice through all of their twists and turns over the decades, you won’t be shocked or surprised at any of the music here, though you may well be struck by the air of professional attention to detail and sweeping range of styles showcasing the breadth of the Solstice palette. The band may well have spent these last four decades giving off that impression of being a figurative and almost literal ‘cottage industry’, but this album belies the ‘home-brewed’ expectations associated with that tag. Have no fear, this isn’t Def Leppard or anything, and Andy and the crew haven’t spent the last 18 months locked away with Mutt Lange in a luxury studio taking two weeks obsessing over four bass notes and a drum fill, but it is clear from first note to last that love and care has been lavished on the result – and that’s good enough for me! There are very few bands who have managed to be somehow outside of time and in their own unique ‘bubble’, despite a roll-call of members passing through. Gong are one example. The Enid are another. Perhaps the Ozric Tentacles might be a third. But Solstice are definitely among that small and singular collective. Long may they run!