[sic] Magazine

My Autumn Empire – Oh, Leaking Universe

My Autumn Empire is the moniker of Benjamin Holton, also known as one half of experimental pastoral pioneers Epic45. Oh, Leaking Universe is Holton’s fifth album and his first for nearly three years.

The most startling observation about this album is the overall dynamic, i.e. the bringing together of a whole scrapbook of ideas, memories and snapshots – and also the overall feel, which is really loose in terms of both the writing and recording. Let’s get this immediately out of the way – Epic45 fans will not be disappointed – there are elements of Epic45 peppered throughout the album – but really, there is so much more going on here that the album not only possesses an identity all of its own but actually goes much further. There are arguably many moments where Holton attempts new techniques of writing and recording new sounds – and he doesn’t just pull it off – but unleashes the fireworks and loads the cannons.

In previous albums, Holton has visited themes of looking back, of loss, sadness and regret. The first few seconds of ‘Future Song’, however, reveal a whole new positive state of mind whereby Holton sounds like he’s reinvented himself, possibly rediscovered himself even. Dare I say it, there is an underlying happiness to the track which those familiar with his work haven’t heard for quite some time. The usual acoustic guitars are intact, but – what’s this? – mid-1970s synths that sound like they’ve been transported from a Kraftwerk recording session (and sounding mighty fine too!) – as well as a chorus that really does transcend the track. It’s a cracking way to kick off the album. But wait – there are also guitars reminiscent of ‘A Forest’-era The Cure and that vocal – “One Day We’re Going To Wake Up, One Day We’re Going To Take It Back”. A perspective on Brexit? A dialogue on life? Of that I’m currently unsure.

At this point in the album I initially began to worry that the momentum mightn’t be sustained, but really – I needn’t have had any such concerns. It’s fair to say that each track has a very different feel and while, as a whole, the album feels like a coherent set of songs, crucially it behaves like nine very different chapters of a single story, almost like we’re playing a game of “Whodunnit”, each song revealing yet another vital clue.

Let’s return to my point about the album having a “loose” feel. When ‘Everything’s Fine’ comes along, the song changes its route so many times, it’s almost like a journey into itself and around itself. Kicking off like an early Blur song, it then – almost chameleon-like – changes its spots and moves into more of a laid-back acoustic vibe. There are some lovely chord changes herein too. In particular, the final minute is a revelation.

Those dynamics I mentioned are present across the entire album; ‘Infinite Suburbs’ is absolutely littered with them and sounds all the better for it. Bear in mind that as I’m writing this, it’s around 30 degrees outside and actually feels like 40 degrees inside, so ‘Frost On My Shoes’ sounds distinctly out of kilter with the weather – but all’s forgiven, as the chord changes are divine. Lots of space is provided for the instrumentation and it really helps to open the song up.

‘The Fractal Corridor’ is an instrumental piece that neatly draws a line between the album’s two halves – it’s so incredibly intense before suddenly… the shade turns back to light and then… back to darkness again. The track works so well because it contains almost different sides of the same coin. The ending is abrupt and unexpected and I like the track even more for it.

The second half of the album is even more thought provoking. It should be noted that ‘Forgotten Futures’ is a whisker short of 10 minutes in length and the title track itself weighs in at more than 8 minutes. Instruments are layered and introduced slowly. When vocals enter the fray around halfway into ‘Forgotten Futures’, they’re there because they feel absolutely right. The repeated line “We are rebuilding, we are rebuilding” might actually be a personal mantra for Holton, but it’s the instrumentation that takes centre-stage in this track – and when it’s this good, then why not?

The title track carries the ghost of The Beatles and levitates to somewhere else entirely around halfway through. Once again, Holton plays with the idea that a song can morph into something entirely different. There’s no playing by the normal rules here. Imagination is the key component and I really can’t describe what’s been going on in Holton’s mind over the past couple of years, but there are so many U-turns that it makes listening to every minute of this album truly special. No moment is wasted; ideas feels realised and presented in a way in which the listener feels involved, uplifted and simply compelled to hear the whole.

Once we reach final track ‘The Sadness’, recorded with fellow Epic45 band mate Rob Glover, it speaks to me not of anxiety or worry – but of optimism, of freedom and ultimately love. To offer Holton the final words, “There’s a sadness in every home. You can hide it, but don’t feel alone”. A truly inspiring listen.

~Oh, Leaking Universe is released on July 20th 2018 on CD and digital.~