A Liminal Review: Hymns & Ghosts by Lost Harbours (August 23rd, 2012)

The sounds of horror, as in both the emotion and the cinema genre, have been trickling into contemporary and even pop music for decades now. Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night was once cited as being the first “horror album” (a dubious claim, given the glee with which Young and his tequila-sloshed cohorts made it), a title that could easily have been attached to Lou Reed’s Berlin. More recently, techno, drone and electronic artists, from Demdike Stare to Nate Young, have turned to the sinister atmospherics of vintage John Carpenter films for inspiration, whilst the obsession of noise with brutal violence and gore continues unabated and Black Metal doggedly expands on the corpse paint-coated ethos of its sinister early days. It seems horror is fertile ground for a wide range of artists and musicians, and, as someone who lapped up every second of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho and Rec, I welcome it with unabashed, albeit grim, joy.

Southend-on-Sea-based duo Lost Harbours look further back and across a wider field than most, plumbing the sort of primordial depths that has rightly garnered them a positive write-up by the Archdrude himself, Julian Cope. The core of Hymns & Ghosts (the title kind of speaks for itself) is an atmospheric form of acoustic folk, one clearly indebted to the “Pagan” traditions of the British and Irish isles. Shades of Simon Finn, Nick Drake and Bill Fay can be found in the elegant-yet-taught acoustic guitar melodies, whether they involve delicate finger-picking or driving, minimalist and hard-edged riffage, as on the visceral ‘Portent’, whilst the seventies feel of the music is encapsulated in well-placed flute flourishes from Emma Reed. As with Finn, Richard Thompson’s vocals are often dramatic, albeit with a more fervent and suppressed mantra-like quality, especially on ‘Spring’s Fire’, where the vocals resemble a choir-like chant. Sometimes, these dark, wispy tones are rather awkwardly set aside in favour of straight-ahead pastorality, notably on the insubstantial ‘Sister’, but for the most part, this feels like folk music taken out of time, instantly (and viscerally) familiar, but with a potency that stretches beyond the confines of musical history and imagination.

Of course, when it comes to dark folk from these isles, it’s impossible not to mention Comus, a clear influence on Lost Harbours, to the point that their vocalist Bobbie Watson appears on the closing track, adding elemental grace to proceedings with her trademark soaring vocalisations. On ‘Portent’, Thompson edges close to the possessed angst of Comus’ Roger Wootton in his vocal style, but, equally, across the eight-minute “Morning Song”, the duo stretch out and traverse a lot of territories, from the English wispiness of Comus classic ‘The Herald’ to Fahey-esque Appalachian folk. Far from being an Anglo-Irish curiosity, Lost Harbours’ mood-based beauty has a universality of space as well as time, and is perhaps closer to the Midwestern noise scene of Failing Lights, Demons and Nate Young than would appear at first listen.

The web that draws all these subtly disparate strands together is Popol Vuh, specifically Florian Fricke’s essential scores for Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Nosferatu and the pan-religious folk of Hosianna Mantra, the influence of the latter bubbling under the surface of the aforementioned folky tracks in the album’s middle section. But Hymns & Ghosts’ ragged, expansive beauty owes everything to the two versions of the title track that bookend the album (hey, we’re back at Tonight’s the Night). Lengthy, untethered and traversed by unsettling beauty, these two pieces centre around extended, slow-paced chants that drift over a dense tapestry of constrained drone and haunting sound effects. Both ‘Hymns and Ghosts’ possess much of the hypnotic unease of Popol Vuh’s ‘Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts’, with a similar juxtaposition of grace (the vocals) and doom (just about everything else). When pealing bells pierce the ether on the first part, it’s as if a funeral march is parading under your window, Seventh Seal-style. Meanwhile, as Watson and Thompson’s voices overlap on ‘Hymns and Ghosts part 2′, it’s as if noise veteran and singular vocalist Gary Mundy is sitting in on, well, a Popol Vuh session. Few albums released this year will carry such a stirring mix of becalmed elegance, dark malevolence and spacey ethereality.

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