English composer Simon Holt has collected an enviable number of honors and commissions since his entry onto the British contemporary music scene in 1984 with his work Kites. Over the years, Holt has enjoyed an extended working relationship with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, leading to a number of commissions for him, including that for the song cycle Boots of Lead and the earlier Lilith. This NMC Recordings disc, Boots of Lead -- Feet of Clay, is the tangible result of Holt's association with BCMG. Despite the invitation afforded by the amusingly low-rent cover image, it was hard work to get any sense of what might be appealing about Holt's music, and that was after three careful, attentive listens to the disc. Note writer Tom Service states that Holt's music "is a way of cresting sonic objects that resonate in a heightened world of imagination," and that it is "poetically and emotionally charged." One looks for these attributes in the music itself and cannot find them; most of it seems terribly cold, distant, disinterested, and without spirit.
Clearly, Holt understands instruments and likes to utilize them in their highest ranges -- a good bit of the middle section of the solo cello piece Feet of Clay sounds as though played on the violin. Cellist Ulrich Heinen works his fingers off to sell this piece, and it is the highlight of the disc. Yet near the opening one hears a series of dropping minor ninths; so many in a row that one wants to say "hey, get on with it Mac." Kites evokes some vaguely pictorial ideas through the manner in which high-pitched instruments loop around in the atmosphere, but after awhile it seems as though a monster has appeared on the scene. This same monster also shows up in Lilith. Boots of Lead -- Feet of Clay sounds like Varèse meets Boulez, with plenty of the entire rigor and overwork of the latter, yet none of the magic of the former. Perhaps there is something this reviewer is missing, but overall, Boots of Lead -- Feet of Clay is both a chore and a bore.