Aside from being perhaps the best album released in 2012, Southend duo Lost Harbours’ Hymns & Ghosts was also perfectly titled. Despite ostensibly being a folk album drawing from the rich British tradition of the late sixties and early seventies, the presence of droning violins and hushed, spectral vocals lent a deeply unsettling atmosphere to the album’s six tracks, one that felt both heretically devotional and eerily phantasmagorical. It was a stirring and confident “full” debut, at times echoing Comus and Natural Snow Buildings, but somehow existing in a world of its own primordial making.
Hymns & Ghosts should have been a tough act to follow, but the aptly-named (for folkies) Richard Thompson (vocals, guitar, noises) and his violin and reeds wielding cohort Emma Reed have surpassed themselves with Into The Failing Light. This album takes the foundations laid by its predecessor, then upends them before spiralling off into a new direction. Only a few signposts lead back to Hymns & Ghosts, a mostly folk-oriented affair bar the foaming, two-part title track, with its intoxicatingly rural nods to bands like Forest And Trees.
Into The Failing Light sees Lost Harbours dare to strike out into the wind-buffeted wilderness that lies at the core of Thompson and Reed’s music, one where even the delicately plucked acoustic guitars on ‘Whispers In The Night’ and ‘Evening Vessel – Into The Gloom’ feel austere and sepulchral, as if recorded in the depths of a millennia-old neolithic barrow. Thompson’s subdued fingerpicking evokes more recent purveyors of arcane folk such as Matt Baldwin and Richard Youngs, whilst a more fleshed-out palette that includes raging electric guitar on the twelve-minute ‘Portal’ as well as dashes of organ, samples, clarinet and flute on other tracks, somehow contributes to an atmosphere that is brooding, remote and melancholic all at once.
Both ‘Portal’ and the equally (but differently) portentous opener ‘Winter Shall Reign’ perhaps best represent the radical shift in Lost Harbours’ focus in the two years since Hymns & Ghosts. The latter sees Thompson’s morose vocals subsumed in layers of crepuscular violin drones, like a sea-shanty gone haywire. The former meanwhile, starts off with a languid folk melody before gradually metamorphosing into a seething miasma of electrified guitar and violin noise halfway through, bursting at the seams by the close in a wave of feedback and fuzz, as if West Country weirdo Urthona dropped in unannounced on the sessions.
In both cases, Lost Harbours feel like they’re channeling the spirit of doom into more acoustic-friendly territory, putting them on the same plane of metal-infused pagan folk as Ulver and Wolfmangler, except more firmly connected to the devotional heart of paganism. The tempos across Into The Failing Light are slovenly and thoughtful, some tracks more ritual than song.
As with much folk, this is music that is tied to locations, and with titles such as ‘Evening Vessel – Into the Gloom’ and ‘The Undulating Sea’, Britain’s maritime geography hoves acutely into view. We’re not really a nation of sandy beaches and blue seas, more of windswept cliff tops and broiling black waters, and Lost Harbours, perhaps due to their Essex coast origins, channel these vistas on Into The Failing Light, much as Sandy Denny did with different, but equally untethered, results on The North Star Grassman & The Ravens. Into The Failing Light feels anchored to this bizarre island of homogenous cities, wild moors and ragged coastlines, even as it drifts out of time altogether.