It certainly makes the writer feel old in realising that nearly a decade has drifted past since Last Harbour first appeared in his erstwhile University town of Leicester, England. Although a lot has happened to Last Harbour during the last decade, it’s strangely comforting to note that the core vision of its co-founding mainstays – singer Kevin Craig and guitarist David Armes – has remained heroically untainted and uncompromised by the passage of time. So whilst the group has relocated to a more northern base-camp (Manchester), lost old and gained new members, switched between several labels (Liquefaction Empire, Alice In Wonder, Tonguemaster and Little Red Rabbit Records), Last Harbour’s intuitive grip on both bleak austerity and chivalrous romanticism has maintained its consistent firmness, as this third full-length set testifies.
In fact, Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark, is perhaps the most undiluted and steadfast Last Harbour LP to date, with the only concession to outside influences coming from the hiring of ‘named’ producer Richard Formby (Spacemen 3, Spectrum, Dakota Suite). With the more elaborate arrangements of its predecessor (2005’s Hold Fast, Pioneer) largely stripped-away, Dead Fires is a much closer representation of the seven-strong Last Harbour live line-up. Additionally, the song-count has been consciously trimmed to nine tightly-focused tracks (compared to the 13 apiece found on Hold Fast… and 2002’s The Host of Wild Creatures) and there are also no instrumental interludes this time around (like the wonderful “Goodbye Huw” from The Host of Wild Creatures). The end result of such self-purging clarity is an album brimming with self-assurance across its suite of nocturnal ballads.
The opening “Broken Nail” and “Saint Luminous Bride” pretty much unfurl the whole LP’s blueprint from the offset. The former finds Sarah Kemp’s typically evocative violin lines and Gina Murphy’s plaintive piano-playing wrapping themselves around Craig’s gently-crooned narrative, whilst the remainder of the ensemble colour in the subtle details. The latter is more representative of Last Harbour’s stormy theatrical-edge, with Craig’s vocals climatically tumbling into a far more threatening timbre, as strings swirl violently and guitars ebb ‘n’ flow forebodingly. This mix of tenderness and toughness recurs throughout the remainder of the record. Thus, the apocalyptic thunder-clapping reaches a vertigo-inducing peak on the searing Crime & The City Solution-indebted “Science Song”, whereas the beatific but bitterly-worded “No-One Ever Said” and “The Further Field” reach more deeply into the rueful rustic realms of the Last Harbour lexicon. Dead Fires sometimes falters however, when these dual musical impulses collide. This means that the predominantly serene strains of “The Accident” are overshadowed by a chaotic closing coda, in which Craig practically screams through a megaphone in a somewhat over-egged fashion. Furthermore, the bizarre Baltic sea-shanty “Out Back”, with Murphy taking the vocal lead, jars too much like “Your Verses” did on Hold Fast… and the absence of vocal-less explorations is missed in balancing the collection’s overall pacing.
These occasionally uncomfortable side-effects are perhaps inevitable given the seemingly deliberate ‘no-prisoners’ approach that Dead Fires prescribes. But then it’s often better to offend some passive consumers rather than pander to fickle market forces. There will always be place for a band like Last Harbour, where doggedness and commitment translates into a respectable canon over a long-term career. Reassuringly, this stern but gradually rewarding long-player certainly fits itself convincingly into Last Harbour’s difficult but durable body of work.