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Lost Harbours
Towers Of Silence Joseph Burnett , October 10th, 2017 14:16

Lost Harbours return with another beautiful, sombre missive beamed out of the dark underworld of Southend-on-Sea (via Riga, Latvia).

The duo of guitarist-singer Richard Thompson (a great name to have if you’re a folk artist) and Emma Reed on flute and clarinet have been delving into the sepulchral side of folk ever since their full debut Hymns And Ghosts in 2012, slinking away from the “Come all ye” singalongs and mainly estival spirit of folk-rock’s early 70s heyday in favour of sparsely arranged, self-penned laments and murder ballads. A period of regular touring and exposure to the harsh climate and beautiful landscapes of Latvia has streamlined this dogged approach on Towers Of Silence, resulting in a spartan record of unswerving morosity.

It’s a bold step. Where Hymns And Ghosts was ethereal and spectral and its follow-up, Into the Failing Light, incorporated angry swells of electric guitar, Towers Of Silence sounds more like a Lost Harbours live set. On stage, Thompson sits hunched over his guitar while Reed perches next to him, listening deeply to his singing (when not contributing vocals herself) and fluttering out gentle notes on clarinet or flute. Despite the presence of two extra backing singers, Sabine Moore and Diana Collier, on some of the tracks, and some atmospheric effects from Thompson, this remains the core format for Towers Of Silence, allowing the full force of the lyrics to hammer home.

In a brave move, Lost Harbours open the album with a stark cover of ‘Black is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair)’, a classic ballad here twisted into a ritual song that sounds like its purpose is to raise the dead. Thompson’s stark finger-picking pulls the audio space wide, allowing his mournful vocals to fill in the gaps, accompanied by Moore and Collier. The song’s melancholic lament is inescapable with such a delivery, making Lost Harbours’ version possibly the most haunting since Patty Waters transformed into a free jazz freakout on her debut album in 1966.

The album’s other cover is ‘Idumea’, an English folksong that drifted out of the local vernacular but survived on the American frontier. Lost Harbours credit Current 93 with introducing them to the song, and it’s easy to hear echoes of David Tibet’s band in Towers Of Silence. The funereal atmosphere of the song’s lyric is echoed by slow-burning drones as Moore and Collier bid farewell to a loved one and direct them to the underworld. This is the Current 93 of Soft Black Stars: devoted, sparse and contemplative, the past seeping into the present on the wings of ghosts, the dead refusing to be forgotten by the living. (The album’s title refers to ritualistic sky burials, when a body is laid out to the elements to be picked apart by birds and other scavengers. Life and death meld into one another across Towers Of Silence, symbolised in this choice of covers.)

In between these two inherited pieces, Thompson and Reed’s original compositions maintain the bleak and haunting atmosphere, the former’s aching vocals dominating ‘Lake’ amid wailing wordless vocalisations from Moore and Collier. The originals seem as much inspired by space and landscape as they are by phantoms and past memories, as the lyrics conjure up the wild spaces of Latvia’s countryside on ‘Two Suns’ and rows of electric pylons and concrete homes dotting Essex on ‘Elegy’ and ‘Waking’. The arrangements on all remain sparse but intensely atmospheric, Thompson exquisite guitar notes tumbling around the voices and wistful interventions on flute and clarinet from Reed.

Towers of Silence is a sombre, bleak experience, but the commitment that drives these performances and the dedication to exploring the shadows of existence are impressive. Fans of the ebullient side of British folk may find this austerity daunting, but if you have delved into the nightmarish vistas of Comus and Forest, or trained your ear over the Atlantic to imbibe the bleak Appalachian folk of Espers, you’ll find there is much to gorge on in these abyssal depths.