The Duke St Workshop
Tales Of H.P. Lovecraft
, January 20th, 2016 23:05
Though largely ignored during his lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft is a writer whose worldview and ideas have subsequently gone on to be profoundly influential. Like J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, one of his primary themes is that the ordered world we think we know is but a hair's breadth away from chaos and reality is not to be trusted. However, while Ballard and Dick have gone on to be embraced by both the literary establishment and Hollywood, Lovecraft has remained in the sepulchral shadows, his so-called Cthulhu Mythos inspiring legions of horror writers and B-movie makers, as well as a long line of bands and musicians, from Metallica to Ghost Box. (Here's Alan Moore talking about the importance of Lovecraft to 20th century culture (from 3.00), though for others he's a far more controversial figure).
The latest group to take on Lovecraft's legacy are spooktronica duo The Duke St Workshop, in collaboration with cult horror actor Laurence R. Harvey. But rather than use Lovecraft's characters as just stage dressing for their own music, they've actually built an album around readings by Harvey of two of Lovecraft's stories From Beyond and The Hound. Now, you're probably thinking that this way madness lies (not to mention Rick Wakeman's King Arthur On Ice), but Tales Of H.P. Lovecraft is an excellent marriage of spoken word and music that creates a compelling and genuinely disturbing listening experience.
From Beyond is based around one of Lovecraft's recurring conceits, that the world we perceive is not all there is and that we unknowingly share it with trans-dimensional entities hostile to our existence if aroused. Beginning with a surge of bitter winds and Harvey intoning the ominous line, "He had something to show me," The Duke St Workshop skilfully create an atmosphere of impending dread using simple piano arpeggios shadowed by cold radiophonic synths. On 'Tillinghast', the primordial throb of electronics and lonely cascading melody recalls The Advisory Circle, but while the sonic aesthetic of Ghost Box is an obvious comparison, The Duke St Workshop's sound is steelier and less allusive.
'The Machine' starts with the thudding and whooshing of a malevolent mechanism before transforming into the type of arcane disco that Pye Corner Audio specialises in. Similarly, a fat electro bassline underpins menacing but graceful keys on 'Negative Forces' as the hidden universe is revealed. Then comes the tolling of an awful bell, as Harvey whispers with relish of "horrible chaos from beyond" and "great inky black jellyish monstrosities." A final cry of "they are coming!" and then the concluding piano coda of 'Lament', which sounds like a riff on Erik Satie's famous 'Gymnopédies'.
If the subtext of From Beyond is the inability to unsee a terrible truth once glimpsed, then The Hound embodies another Lovecraft trope, the pursuit of forbidden knowledge by disaffected protagonists which leads to their ultimate damnation. Musically, we begin again at the haunted dancehall, a lowlight bass groove leading into 'The Secret Museum's' tentative piano melody, a sense of space and precision setting The Duke St Workshop apart from others who've trodden a similar path. Once again, the music perfectly complements the story: the spectral analogue mist curling around gravestones in 'The Churchyard'; the persistent, metronomic bleeping of 'Apparitions At Windows'; the piercing, mounting tension of 'St. John & The Beast'; the bass drum of terror and spirit voices of 'Return To The Churchyard'. Harvey's subtle and restrained delivery also ramps up the unease by resisting the urge to overdramatise Lovecraft's already vividly purple prose.
Much like Lovecraft's occult creations, The Duke St Workshop have been operating away from human eyes for a while now, despite a series of impressive releases – for example, their last album, Cabin 28, was in a more melancholic vein, but dealt with horrific subject matter that was only too real (here's Laurence R. Harvey in a video for the title track, giving a master class in hitchhikers not to pick up). Tales Of H.P. Lovecraft is their most accomplished work to date, and deserves to bring them to a wider audience.