“Hold Fast, Pioneer
really dig this band. After two mesmerizing releases on the troubled (and
now defunct) Alice-In-Wonder label, it’s great to see a new album (on
a new label) from this group of talented folks! First off, it will
help if you have a taste for the Tindersticks / Nick Cave / Scott
Walker / Black Heart Procession end of the vocal spectrum. That said,
Last Harbour have their own sound. They exist in their own realm,
dishing out potent, sinister ballads in minor key fashion. KEVIN
CRAIG croons pure poison mist from the speakers, and I mean this
in the best possible way. Piano and strings add heft, but none of it
comes off as overblown or pompous. They might straddle that line, but
never cross it. For the uninitiated, Last Harbour might be swimming
too far into the deep end of melancholia. For the rest of us that can
handle soul bearing of this poignancy… Light the candles and draw the
blinds, let’s wallow! (www.tonguemaster.co.uk)
Hold Fast, Pioneer '
Manchester quintet Last Harbour offer up the elliptical ' Hold
Fast,Pioneer ' (Tongue Master). Like 2002's ' The Host Of Wild
Creatures ' it's a record of seductive charm and nocturnal glower,
added noir courtesy of sleepy vocalist Gina Murphy. Comes with a
quirky black-and-white short/soundtrack inspired by European cinema.
- ROB HUGHES
' Hold Fast, Pioneer '
what is the bodycount on this debut album from Manchester five-piece
Last Harbour? Well, there's a vision of blood on 'Johnny Row', sado-masochistic
sex in 'China White' and a parade of night visitors who presage ill.
It feels like a tidal bloodbath mainly because the atmosphere is so
full of dread and fear. These songs of morbid romance are churned
from the depths of a dark psyche, and the biggest shock is that it
could happen here, in Manchester, rather than, say, the deepest
recesses of the American South or the Australian outback. The
backdrop is eerie and electric, but fans of Joy Division might
recognise the terrain. Play late at night, with the doors locked and
the lights down for maximum blood-curling effect.
- MIKE BUTLER
Influenced by:Nick Cave,Low
Artists:Tindersticks,Michael Gira's Swans
' Hold Fast, Pioneer ' (Tongue Master)
Last week, the
dear old NME wrote a hilarious article about Nine Black Alps,
suggesting they were the "least Mancunian-sounding" band to come
from Manchester. Hur hur. Bless 'em.
Not that your reviewer has any problem with Nine Black Alps. Their
single "Cosmopolitan" made the requisite boisterous noises and still
makes regular appearances on this writer's overworked stereo, but
that's not the point. If said organ insists on talking like they
have some semblance of a handle on bands from the Mancunian
hinterland who sound "nothing like" the city's accepted pop lineage
(i.e The Smiths, The Roses, The Charlatans, New Order etc), then
perhaps they should make the effort to widen their net to check out
the likes of Quiet Loner and now LAST HARBOUR. Both are significant
performers working broadly within the folk and Alt.Country genres
who are making terrific albums like QL'S under-rated "Secret Ruler
Of The Heart" and Last Harbour's new "Hold Fast, Pioneer."
Last Harbour are a quintet based around vocalist Kevin Craig and
guitarist David Armes. They make relentlessly melancholic, largely
beguilingly brilliant music threaded through with lashings of
atmosphere and filmic possibilities, which come housed in sleeves
involving deep forbidden Eastern European lakes. It's also safe to
say that they REALLY sound absolutely nothing like anything that's
previously come out of Manchester in the accepted sense.
The band have been lurking around the margins for a few years.
They've previously been responsible for the rare 7" single "Hidden
Songs", the French-released "An Empty Box Is My Heart" and last made
their presence felt via 2002's "The Host Of Wild Creatures". "Hold
Fast, Pioneer" is their first full-length UK album release, though,
and it's as good a place as any to get acquainted with their
obsessive noir-ish blues.
Opener "China White" gives you some idea of the album's prevailing
mood of sombre glory. It's a mordant, semi-acoustic beauty which
smoulders with sweeping violin and shades of Tindersticks, Nick Cave
and Lincoln. Craig sings moodily of "so many moths to a single flame"
and - despite the title's connotation - the song is probably about
impossible, forbidden passion rather than narcotic dalliance.
Whatever, it's quite a scene-setter and unsettlingly beautiful.
rarely lets up thereafter. Songs like "Circle" and "Silver Leaves"
are charged and malevolent affairs which hover drunkenly in the air,
while the superficially prettier likes of "We Always Said" and "Your
Verses" are ultimately every bit as threatening. The former is an
organic, boy/girl duet with lonely, Blixa Bargeld-ish slide guitar
and its' opening gambit is the impossibly fatalistic "We always said
we'd be better off dead." Cripes. "Your Verses" also sells you a
dummy: it kicks in with a brittle musical box melody before mutating
into a sour scorned-woman blues of some vengeance and quality.
Occasionally, it can sail a little close to pastiche for comfort.
The malicious sea-shanty that is "Johnny Row" is almost a Bad Seeds
xerox, even though its' brooding quality is pervasive. However,
there's no such problems with either the closing "The Ties That Bind"
or the great "Serpents." The former is initially bitter, solemn and
sparse, but flourishes to a climax by way of an oddly uplifting
string-drenched coda, while "Serpents" is a superb, quasi-religious
thing of some wonder, which opens with Craig warning "The sweetest
fruit rots on the vine, the lowest creature fears the divine" and
recalls solo-era Cathal Coughlan. Suitably favourably, I might add.
"Hold Fast, Pioneer" is troubled, intimate and sometimes painfully
voyeuristic. It's also nearly uniformly excellent and proves Last
Harbour's sad waters run deep and jealously hoard all manner of
sunken treasure. Don't call the coastguard.
" Hold Fast, Pioneer "
Cello-laden, minor-key balladry from the Manchester quintet, tipping
a trilby to Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the Tindersticks.
" Hold Fast, Pioneer " - 4.5 / 5
There's a school of thought that suggests that Tindersticks singer
and Vic Reeves' pub singer persona are one and the same. And for
a few, this makes the 'sticks beautiful prog-flamenco epics unlistenable.
For this small minority, Last Harbour may have the answer. From
the lolloping cowpoke rhythms on opener 'China White' through to
almost painfully slow-moving 'The Ties That Bind' that closes this
set, we have a collection of heartstring-tugging croons set atop
either lushly-orchestrated set-pieces or almost Calvanistically-frugal
semi-acoustic backings. In the main, it's a mini string section
which provides the backing and recalls the violin work of Long Fin
Killie - another plus point.
To be fair, the comparisons to Stuart Staples and co don't apply
to every track here by any means - 'We Always Said'... "we'd
be better off dead"' - is a sweet duet closer to Low in delivery,
but with the same dark themes. Indeed a more accurate comparison
might be Is This Music's? doom-country faves Puerto Muerto, while
there's something of Nick Cave in the native rhythms on 'Johnny
Row'. But no matter the invidious comparisons, Last Harbour is well
worth the visit.
- STUART McHUGH
" Hold Fast, Pioneer " - 7/10
Taking the traditional folk ensemble and injecting it with a much-needed
contemporary twist, Last Harbour come across like the progeny of
Nick Cave and The Tindersticks. This means they indulge in plenty
of bleak, melancholy laments but these are accompanied by soaring
violin and driving acoustics that somehow make ' Hold Fast, Pioneer
' fresh & utterly compelling. The spirit of Tom Waits is evoked
in the slurred and mumbling ' Circle ', which rides high with drunken,
swaying piano and bursts of sparkling mandolin. ' His Cold Hand
' recalls even darker, murkier soundscapes, heavily redolent of
something that could be heard at your nearest art-cinema joint.
' Serpents ', meanwhile, has a slightly quicker, stronger feel;
stomping its militant feet and carrying the band, weary but determined,
towards the album's conclusion. It's sinister stuff, but well worth
hearing for its grace and morbid beauty.
- AMY MCGILL
Hold Fast, Pioneer "
haunting and cinematic second album from Mancurian group Last Harbour
with an affinity for fire and brimstone religious imagery
world is so unkind/bitter and beautiful/sinister and dutiful"
vocalist Kevin Craig concludes towards the end of the elegiac 'The
Ties That Bind', the twelfth and final track on his band Last Harbour's
latest album. 'Hold Fast Pioneer'. It could in many ways serve as
a summary of the record itself.
rustic 'Hold Fast Pioneer' is tinged with haunting, cinematic atmospherics
and sometimes harsh, but always melodic arrangements. As its front
cover of a stark Eastern European landscape in midwinter, however,
suggests, the subject matter of this album for all its beauty is
bleak. Unrequited love, adultery, sin and betrayal are its main
themes, and, like Sixteen Horsepower and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,
with whom Last Harbour share a similar affinity for fire and brimstone
religious imagery, the apocalypse never seems far away.
Manchester-based consortium, Last Harbour first formed in 1998,
and released their debut EP, a four song 7", 'Hidden Songs'
on local label Liquefaction in early 2000. They followed this with
a five song mini album, 'An Empty Box is My Heart' in 2001 and their
debut full-length album 'The Host of Wild Creatures' in 2002. Both
of these came out on the French label Alice in Wonder. 'Hold Fast,
Pioneer' has been released on London-based label, Tongue Master
Last Harbour's pivotal members have always been Craig and David
Armes (guitar, bass), the band's line-up stabilised at the time
of 'The Host of Wild Creatures' to also include Gina Murphy (piano,
vocals, melodica, organ), Sarah Kemp (violin, banjo) and Huw McPherson
(drums, percussion). Craig's burly, baritone vocals; Armes' orderly
acoustic guitar pluckings ; Murphy's wonky, slightly askew piano
work ; Kemp's seesawing, Slavic-influenced violin and McPherson's
clattering drum work plus icy, occasionally discordant pedal steel
on several tracks from special guest James Youngjohns (who also
plays with Kemp in local alt.country act Anna Kashfi) all solder
together to make 'Hold Fast, Pioneer' an unsettling experience.
opening track 'China White' melds tinkles of piano and gently tilting
violin with slowly rattling, funereal slabs of drums, and finds
the gravel-voiced Craig, "his heart sent to flame" becoming
absorbed by the china white skin of a girl he meets in a dark bar.
As he becomes increasingly and much to his own fear fixated, he
finds, however, that her skin, far from being unblemished, instead
is covered with "holes and the scars and cuts and the bruises",
a mantra which he obsessively and with horror repeats to himself
over and over as the song ends. In an ambiguous twist, one is left
uncertain at the conclusion of 'China White' whether the girl's
bruises are possibly stigmata marks, or if it is something that
she has done to herself, or Craig has done to her because she has
is a chilling start, one which is heightened as one doesn't really
know what has happened, but much of the rest of the album proves
to be similarly unnerving. 'Corrosives' opens with scrapings of
loops and Armes gently twitching his guitar before swelling gradually
upwards to become an Eastern European-flavoured orchestral light
waltz. Craig plays the role of a preacher returning to his home
town after a long absence, but as he sings "this town is full
of hate and ire/this town is petty and bitter and jealous/it is
heavy in heart and vicious/I hope that you are ready for a town
on fire" one realises that, far from returning to try to save
it, he has come to take vengeance on it and to destroy it.
country gig 'Your Verses' features a sneering Gina Murphy taking
a rare turn on vocals and playing the role of a woman scorned who
seeks revenge on her former lover by destroying the songs he has
written for his new love. The morose and sinister 'Johnny Row' has
Craig bouncing melancholic vocals against a harpy-like ten-piece
choir, and finds its central protagonist, along with the other occupants
of a doomed ship, trying to "scourge temptation" but ending
up damned regardless. The shimmering 'The Ties That Bind' meanwhile
brings the album to a soft, beguiling close and has a weary Craig,
knowing that there is nothing fair about what he is doing, breaking
up with his lover and suggesting to her that she takes her chances
with God for comfort.
disturbing, but equally so compelling, 'Hold Fast, Pioneer' is undoubtedly
a very dark work, but combines this with a set of lusciously majestic
and sublime musical landscapes. A more bittersweet album is unlikely
to be released this year.
JOHN CLARKSON www.pennyblackmusic.com
" Hold Fast, Pioneer "
Since their initial inception sometime back in 1998, Last Harbour
haven't been blessed with the best of luck. With the early line-up
fragmenting after just one 7" EP (2000's 'Hidden Songs') and
the group's next two releases (2001's 'An Empty Box Is My Heart'
mini-album and 2002's full-length 'The Host of Wild Creatures')
falling foul to the dubious business practices of now defunct French
label Alice In Wonder, it's a small miracle that Last Harbour haven't
sunk without a trace. But as the self-motivational title for this,
their second proper album, suggests, Last Harbour aren't a band
to be brushed aside easily. Quite the contrary in fact, record label
or not, this five-strong (and sometimes more) Manchester-based operation
will still be fighting to release records come the time we're all
connecting iPods directly into our skull cavities by government
decree. Thankfully this time around they do at last have firmer
label support in the shape of Theodore Vlassopulos's Tongue Master
Records, the erstwhile West London outpost for the likes of Mark
Eitzel, The Scene Is Now and Broken Dog. However, reassuringly,
although the bad luck streak appears to be behind them, no sense
of complacency has set into Last Harbour's collective psyche.
the unwelcome gap between recording and releasing new material has
done Last Harbour some good creatively. Whereas its predecessor
was slightly indicative of self-exploratory growing pains, that
occasionally over-flavoured the melting pot, 'Hold Fast, Pioneer'
features a far more ambitious yet leaner approach. By focusing more
on their basic song structures the band are now better at giving
each track its own identity. Allowing the versatile instrumental
embellishments to add texture, not showy distractions, to the core
ideas. It's a subtle self-instructive twist that makes the album
stronger right from the start, and what a start it is. Over a glistening
piano line, woozy violin, diligent guitar-picking and wonderfully
inventive drumming, Kevin Craig's characteristic baritone turns
into a comforting croon on the gorgeous opening China White, fashioning
in the process, the best song The Crime & City Solution never
got to write. Having such a high bar set so early on, certainly
gives the band a challenge to rise to, throughout the remaining
minutes of the album. But rise they do, with both grace and grit.
The slowly churning Corrosives is notably effective, gliding from
a tiny intimate arrangement to a grand Dirty Three-like drama, with
Sarah Kemp's violin wrapping a suitably stirring twine around Gina
Murphy's plaintive keyboards and Craig's omnipresent vocal. The
more grandiose Johnny Row takes things to a more epic level, with
its brute choir assemblage recalling Nick Cave's 'The Good Son'
to entertaining effect. But knowing when to peel things back again
is a tactic carefully used elsewhere, the skeletal piano-led ballad
Serpents being a shining example. A couple of things don't work,
like Craig's employment of the singing-through-an-amp manoeuvre
on Circle or the wobbly Russian folk tune rhythm on the Murphy-sung
Your Verses, but generally this an album built carefully around
resourcefulness, restraint and perhaps for the first time, unbridled
romance. Something that makes the gently ebbing The Ties That Bind
such a fine bookend to the album, in almost the same way that the
Tindersticks gave their eponymous second album such a blissful send-off
with the sublime Sleepy Song. Although the song's trailing last
lyric is the despondent "This world can be so unkind..."
it sounds as if the band want to seek some genuine uplift to make
it ain't so. Something at least this listener wants the band to
reach for next time around, which will hopefully be a lot sooner
than the usual later. Until then though, this thoughtfully evocative
collection will do just fine.
- ADRIAN PANNETT
" Hold Fast, Pioneer " ****
We've had art punk courtesy of Art Brut; arty punk funk from The
Departure and Franz Ferdinand. What about ' Art Melancholy '? Manchester,
five-piece Last Harbour epitomise this new found genre. Firstly
you have to be into The Tindersticks, Low and Nick Cave. You're
definitely a fan of Albert Camus and favour plaintive East European
strings. Oh, and don't forget alt.country atmospherics and ' country
got soul ' emotion. Add sweeping cinematic soundscapes, achieved
with the most minimal of instrumental backing: semi-acoustic guitars,
piano, violin and a few samples. Above all you have to radiate an
air of ubiquitous melancholy. All this moribund stuff could be very
stifling, but the sheer beauty of Last Harbour's songs are hugely
uplifting. ' We Always Said ' equals the best of Gram Parsons &
Emmylou Harris, or Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood . Kevin Craig's
Tindersticks-style tones work their magic on ' China White ' while
bleak strings add to the beauty of ' Circle ' . The tangible pain
of ' Corrosives ' is enough to make Nick Cave sit up and take notice,
while ' His Cold Hand ' luxuriates in John Cale/Velvets-style violin.
- JOHN COLEMAN
Manchester collective Last Harbour follow a romantic muse that should
appeal to fans of Tindersticks' mumble and Nick Cave's dark heart.
"There are a lot of love songs in there," confides singer
Kevin Craig, "but the romance isn't necessarily between two
people. It's with God and boats too!" One such tale is the
doomed narrative of 'Johnny Row', a highlight of their new album
for Tongue Master 'Hold Fast, Pioneer.' "The ship's fucked
and everybody's throwing themselves overboard. He's back to tell
people that this terrible thing has happened. We try to evoke a
story through the atmosphere of the music, and I like to think the
lyrics just help nudge the listener into that atmosphere."
The name Last Harbour was chosen by guitarist, David Armes, from
a song by one of his favourite bands American Music Club. "I
wanted something that reminded me of the David Lynch film "Lost
Highway" which is quite a romantic and sensual film, apart
from the moments of violence and horror. It had that slightly refugee
spirit that we were looking for. In Ireland there's a port called
Last Harbour. It's the westernmost port from where all the immigrants
left for America. Across this great expanse of ocean these people
were trying to get somewhere better than the place they were."
The only way to present their filmic rock in an appropriate atmosphere
is to organise gigs themselves. So, Last Harbour invite like minded
groups to play with them in Manchester at their "People Forget
the Small Things" night at the Kings Arms, Salford. The next
one, on Friday March the 4th, will feature Saint Joan of Nottingham
who will also be touring Britain with them.
The album is released on February 21st on Tongue Master,
- BILLY HELL
Tongue Master Records. All rights reserved