Last Harbour - Caul

by Steve Rhodes Rating:8.5 Release Date:2015-02-09

Manchester's Last Harbour have ploughed for more than a decade a consistent if fairly hidden existence, exploring the edges of Gothic-tinged rock, alt-Country, and melodramatic folk, at a prolific rate. After numerous releases on Little Red Rabbit records, Caul is their first for Salford-based Gizeh Records, and it is a gem, continuing their brooding but enlightened aesthetic, with moody organs, strings, guitars and echoed drums battling for recognition, recalling at times Dream City Film Club, Peter Murphy, John Grant, Migala, Delicatessen and the lighter moments of Nick Cave.

After the brief instrumental 'Feint', where sorrowful strings, organ, piano, keys and booming drums weave in and disappear as quickly as they arrived, it's 'Fracture-Fragment' that truly opens proceedings. With K Young's deep and booming vocal, not a million miles from Tobias O'Kandi from O.Children, quickly introduced, supported by bass, drums, a Morricone-edged guitar, and a sparse backing vocal, the song begins inauspiciously with dark and mournful verses, rising a little in the chorus. But what makes the song is the central bridge, which veers towards mid-to-late 90s troubadours Jack fronting Red Sparowes, especially in the guitars and organs, sitting well with fellow Gizeh-dwellers Tomorrow We Sail.

'Guitar Neck' releases some of the claustrophobia, with an immediate lightness which is anything but fluffy. Like the opener, the wandering, Jah Wobble-esque bass is high up in the mix and K's vocals take a more spoken-word approach in the verses. Treated guitar noises and polite keys make subtle appearances in the backing, while the song becomes more cinematic and sweeping in an uplifting chorus.

Despite this brief respite, darkness and intensity predominate. 'The Deal' opens with Dead Can Dance deeply-mournful strings, disappearing into a dense, almost-suffocating aura. Deeper tones from K, repetitive tom-toms and dark synth chords emerge, with only barely-played 65daysofstatic piano offering chinks of light. 'The Pressure' slows the pace to a crawl but provides the perfect matching instrumentation, with acoustic guitar, bass, guitar shrills and sombre keys all neatly backing K's higher-end vocals, retaining the unsettling theme, with undertones of religious symbolism in the lyrics: “You don't have to carry the crosses you bear anymore”.

Despite the dark tone, there is plenty of scope for surprises with the album. Lead single 'Before the Ritual' contains analogue organs in the mould of Broadcast, breaking out into 70s-Bowie-meets-Gallon Drunk riffs, before eventually leading into an uplifting, fuzzed-keys chorus that seems at odds with the repeated “And you will dance alone” lyric.

'Horse Without a Rider' strips everything back with acoustic and slide guitars guiding the way. More of a torch ballad, with piano, backing vocals and drums pointing towards a countrified Handsome Family lament minus the tendency to document murder. Then, while you're settled in and without warning, the song suddenly ups volume and pace, before reverting to a reflective, drone-like, gloriously dreamy close.

However, it's album closer 'The Promise' that is the highlight. Like all good 13-plus minute finales, the band take a shape-shifting stance with plenty of changes in pace, melody and instrumentation. Drone-heavy strings and background noises dominate a bleak and foreboding opening, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most strung-out, before 70s keys, bass, piano and vocals appear and begin to lighten the mood, resembling a Southern Gothic Tindersticks.

Adding militaristic drumming, increased keys, organs and more purposeful vocals, the song develops into a hypnotic epic, full of luscious descending chords, before evolving into a beautifully restrained finish, with K repeating the line “The arrow falls through time and space and where the arrow falls bury me, bury me”, while the instrumentation slowly fades away one-by-one. A terrific and poignant close.

In pessimistic times, this album might feel like the apt soundtrack for companionship, but though the recording is awash with melancholy and sadness, it doesn't wallow in it. Indeed, rarely has darkness been explored so effectively as on Caul, a glorious album with an open phone-line to David Lynch.

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