Last Harbour – Caul

Last Harbour - Caul

Last Harbour – Caul

Although it’s been around three years since Last Harbour’s last studio LP, the group has remained visible and active in-between times, together and apart.  With a series of archival download sets and co-founders David Armes and Kev Craig unveiling a masterful moonlighting album as A.R.C. Soundtracks, the world hasn’t been starved of Last Harbour-family produce.  Moreover, as well as inking a new deal with Manchester’s Gizeh label, the band has been exploring the possibilities of recording inside a freshly self-built home studio.  The first yield of these refreshed operational arrangements now arrives in the form of Caul.

Pared-back to just eight tracks – albeit with two of extended proportions – the long-player documents one of the most sizeable sonic shifts in the Last Harbour journey in some time.  Freed of time-bound recording restrictions and a producer’s watchful eye, the sextet’s sound has been unpicked and re-stitched with denser and more diverse tapestries, whilst still projecting trademark evocations of melancholy and romance (despite Craig’s claim that the gathered songs are deliberately love-free).  Integral to the musical recalibrations are the liberal addition of analogue synths, the occasional Suicide-aping drum machine, a smattering of gospel-tilted backing vocals and swathes of shadowy ‘80s reverb, all on top of and alongside the more customary rustic-noire instrumental structures.

The scene is set with the brief opening instrumental “Feint,” wherein neo-classical strings and piano gently give way to an outro of elemental synths.  The ensuing “Fracture/Fragment” makes its presence felt even more emphatically; beginning as a low-slung late-night prowler ahead of churning-up into a choir-assisted mini-epic, reminiscent of Nick Cave’s McGarrigle sisters-assisted No More Shall We Part.  Whilst “Fracture/Fragment” is still quite close to the more febrile and windswept entries in the Last Harbour back catalogue, the biggest detours come through “Guitar Neck” and “Before The Ritual.”  With the former track, a Martin Rev percussion pulse leads the way through a maze of Scott Walker strings and the neon-edged elegance of early-Roxy Music, whilst the latter composition tumbles into a sea of spectral synths, distended wah-wah breaks and propulsive drums indebted to the most gothic-alien tracts of Bowie’s Low.

More familiar Last Harbour territory is revisited for the slowly unfurling expanses of the dolorously doomy “Horse Without A Rider” – a plaintive-to-plangent colossus striding across the album’s middle.  In its wake, “The Deal” brings together Blixa Bargeld guitar mutations, sinister strings and insistent drums to cloak Craig’s near-whispered tones in murky multi-layered mysteries and “The Pressure” pours itself into a woozy cocktail of waltzing rhythms and atmospheric overlays.  Proceedings close with the ambitious 13-minute marathon of “The Promise,” which begins primarily as a forlorn duet between Craig and keyboard-player Gina Murphy that sprawls into a swirling choir-bolstered blow-out with hints of hot-buttered Stax soul and Leonard Cohen’s latter-day live renditions of “First We Take Manhattan,”  before dropping-down into a hushed low-key coda.

As with many Last Harbour albums, Caul is not an instant gratification exercise. Furthermore, its stylistic remouldings may prove challenging to less open-eared existing followers used to the band’s more acoustic-framed settings, whilst its barely-veiled bleak side may put off newcomers.  Yet, the risk-embracing recalibrations across the record push the band out of any career winding-down cul-de-sac that could have been expected after sixteen or so years on the clock. With another mini-album scheduled for later in year, culled from the same recording sessions, Caul fits into the Last Harbour canon as a transitory yet still bold step forward.