Solstice celebrate their fortieth anniversary in 2020 and, to commemorate the occasion, are releasing only their sixth studio album, though there have been a couple of ‘live’ albums as well to boost the numbers. They’re also marking the occasion by introducing a new vocalist, Jess Holland, who has really made her presence felt on the new album and, with all respect to the previous incumbent, Emma Brown, Jess is a far superior vocalist and her presence here has really re-energised the band, resulting in Sia ( Gaelic for ‘six’ ) being amongst the best work Solstice has ever done. Earlier in 2020, in an interview with VT, Solstice mainman Andy Glass, now the only member of the original line-up still with the band, stated he thought the forthcoming album would be Solstice’s finest, and he certainly has a point. All the way through this album, the songs are strong, the playing is excellent, there’s a delightful ‘feel’ to the music and the vocals of Jess Holland are a sheer delight.
In their forty years, Solstice have never compromised their music or their beliefs for the sake of popularity. They’re only nominally a prog band, in that their influences derive from New Age and Folk, with an occasional jazzy tinge, in a way which bands who initially came up with them – IQ, Pallas and Pendragon amongst others – rarely did and, unlike most prog bands, there’s no recourse to layers of keyboards and synths. Solstice rarely over-complicate things and their music benefits from this approach.
Sia is an album where the songs are permeated with the calls to individual freedom and to conquer fear, which can clearly be heard, but also with the reminder of the responsibilities we owe to each other. It opens up with Shout, with its soft jazzy intro until the violin enters, when you know this is unmistakably Solstice. They remain one of the few bands who use violin in such a way where it doesn’t immediately remind you of Curved Air. It’s a very atmospheric piece at twelve minutes plus, and the quality of Jess’s singing really stands out. There are some delightful harmonies, a luscious middle eight and the track ends on a rock note. Love is Coming has an acoustic intro, some beautiful harmonies and a message of ‘love is there for all of us if we open up our hearts’. But, for this scribe, it’s the achingly beautiful Long Gone which is the standout track of the album, and it’s a showcase for what Jess Holland can really do. The shortest piece at only four minutes, this is one of the best songs David Crosby-Graham Nash have never written, the kind of slow harmonic tune Crosby might have put together in the early seventies while sailing on his schooner, The Mayan. There’s only gentle acoustic guitar and voices until the violin eventually adds a subtle tinge to the chorus, and it blends in beautifully.
Stand Up is more up-tempo and, with its Hall & Oates-sounding harmonies, the most jazz influenced song on the album, though it rocks out towards the end. Seven Dreams has a slow intro and is a very mellow track with some understated keyboards, only the second time they’re really noticed in the mix, and we’re urged to ‘stand up if you’ve fallen down’. A New Day is another quiet song where Andy Glass and Jess Holland harmonise beautifully, and it gradually builds up to a tastefully played guitar outro from Andy. The album then concludes with Cheyenne, a tune reprised from Solstice’s debut album, Silent Dance, which Andy has wanted to redo for some while, being dissatisfied with previous attempts to record it, but he’s declared himself happy with this latest attempt, and it fits with the vibe of the album nicely.
In summation, this is a really pleasing and satisfying album, easily up there with the best work Solstice have done. The whole album is punctuated with some exquisite harmonies and playing from a band who, down the years, have perhaps been unfairly overlooked. Maybe this new album will go some way towards rectifying the situation.
(Please note: the Solstice website has recently changed to www.solsticeprog.uk – so make sure you make a note of it!)