Thursday 20 February 2020

Lanterns On The Lake - Spook The Herd

Spook The Herd is Lanterns On The Lake's first studio album for six years. It's drenched in romantic optimism but with a sense of reality as it addresses the existential issues facing the world we live in with coping strategies based around the need to hold those close to you even closer. Four albums in, Lanterns On The Lake have found their voice, made their masterpiece and are here to save us.

When Lanterns On The Lake closed their touring cycle for Beings back in 2016, it was with the ominous warning that it might be the last we hear from them for a while, a sign of the musical times that unless you have major label, radio and promoter support your chances are going to be limited unless you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Lanterns On The Lake has spent the previous six years producing three gloriously intricate and innovative in their own way albums that had critical acclaim poured on them, but which never struck home commercially.

A simply magnificent live album, recorded at Gateshead Sage with Royal Northern Sinfonia, felt like their masterpiece. Things went quiet for a while, Hazel played a few shows where she debuted new material slated for a solo project, and it felt like a very unfitting ending for a band that deserved more. Like Spook The Herd though, Lanterns On The Lake have a defiance, they took up a long-standing invitation to tour with James in 2018 where they revealed a batch of new songs that brought hope before heading to the studio to create their fourth record.

Spook The Herd opens with When It All Comes True and it's immediately evident that the band have taken stock and decided to give the nine songs that make up the record space to breathe and allow every subtle nuance in the arpeggiated guitars, bass, drums, viola and especially Hazel Wilde's voice to be heard. There's a real intimacy to Spook The Herd without ever veering too far from their previous work, but the band are opening themselves up to new audiences with the likes of the first two singles Every Atom and Baddies being playlisted by 6 Music.

There's a number of themes running through Spook The Herd that can be distilled down into two - the world is a mess and heading for oblivion and the only way to counter it is to stick together rather than increase the divisions that are tearing us apart. On the opener, Hazel sings with a resigned air "by the time it all comes true, I guess they'll have worked it out" about those that have doubted her take on the world in the past. There's references to the world running out of spin, that could apply equally to climate change as it could to the way the press continue to indoctrinate by use of fear. As the whole thing teeters on the brink, Hazel promises "through the empty streets and the searing heat, when the sirens cease, I'll keep my word for you" as the apocalypse is best faced together rather than apart.

"Don't look now, here come the baddies on a wave of hate" is the unequivocal opening line to Baddies, followed swiftly by "they've got the money, we've got heart and nothing left to lose." It's an unspecific statement that goes past party politics, but makes it clear who the song's anger is being directed at, but leaves open the caveat that the baddies might be on both sides of the argument, such is the way discourse has developed in the past few years over which this record has come to life. Musically, it very much feels like their work with Royal Northern Sinfonia has given them a new insight into creating tension and impact in their songs.

Every Atom deepens that sense that the band's absence has rekindled their fire and refreshed them. It deals with Hazel searching in vain for someone who's disappeared from her view - "I took your cigarettes to our secret place, I knocked on every door in your estate" - with a bold, warm innocent romanticism that runs through the whole record like a main artery, the source of oxygen for so much of these songs. When Hazel sings "If I had to split every atom, just to find a trace of you, that's what I'll do" and later "I said I would and that's what I'll do," you know that she's not given up against the odds and there's still hope.

Blue Screen Beams might temper that optimism in the opening line that paints a picture of helplessness in the way the world is changing - "the TV is faking us, all our heroes are forsaking us" - but Hazel's fighting as the song builds in intensity declaring "we don't need a wall, we need a bigger boat" in reference to the situation of asylum seekers in the US and the Mediterranean. Where her contemporaries might tweet the odd protest at the state of the world, there's very few tackling this issue and the one of climate change and the need to tackle it so face on and in song - "the rising degrees and the blue screen beams, don't say we go down like this" is a call to arms, to not accept our fate because it's still not too late.

It's a subject that continues into Before They Excavate that starts with a simple piano and Hazel venting at someone who's stuck in a rut, lost in small talk and not reacting. There's vivacious references to starting to live life by breaking into their old school and running through the hallways and jumping on desks, gatecrashing palaces and taking what we own back, tearing down billboards and replacing them with art and living under the moon rather than street lights. It's seeking a positive reaction to the state of the world, to live for the now as a counter to the rising waters, unhinged leaders and the whole planet going up in flames from global warming.

The theme of breaking out of a downward spiral - "you've been entombed in your own doubt" captures perfectly the depth of the misery - continues in Swimming Lessons yet the answer is to face it head on. "You'll never learn to swim keeping one foot on the ground... I think the time has come to let go of the side" is accompanied by a swirling uplifting tune that intensifies the words, marks them in bold, underlines them and puts them on repeat until you listen. It's a powerful antidote to resigning yourself to your fate.

There's a tight taut tension to Secrets And Medicine, the piano so sparse that you can hear every detail in Hazel's voice, setting the hairs on the neck on end as she poses the question about the times we're living in - "don't you know the ending, you should have guessed the ending by now, I guess you know the ending by now" - and for the first time it feels like she might be resigned to a fate.

The fight returns on This Is Not A Drill, a song that goes back to the time she was the one who needed saving and then moving forward to now where she's the one who's doing the saving. Like all of Spook The Herd, the language in couched in words that impact deep and raw rather than dealing in insipid and surface-level platitudes. It starts with the reminiscence of "you used to hold back my hair, saying what are we to do with a wreck like you" to the current state where Hazel reflects "I never thought I'd be the one to be saving you" as the roles have reversed completely.

The album finishes with A Fitting Ending and the final adieu of "oh what a fitting ending, what a perfect scene, what a die for moment this turned out to be." It's so fragile, almost not there at points or seemingly in the near distance, but these are the moments where Spook The Herd gets right underneath your skin and permeates into your existence.

If that were to be Lanterns On The Lake signing off one last time, and A Fitting Ending doesn't tell us what the ending is to, it would be just that. Spook The Herd captures every single aspect of Lanterns On The Lake that makes a music lover's heart beat a little bit faster and distills it into nine songs and forty minutes. It adopts the approach that less is more, the depth and beauty of the record is in the way everything is allowed to breathe, blossom and infiltrate the consciousness of the listener, yet the subtleties mean it reveals more on each listen. It's an album to immerse yourself in with the lights dimmed, the outside world shut out, it implores you not to give in, to keep fighting and surround yourself with those that think the same way and maybe, just maybe, we can save each other.

Spook The Herd is released on February 21 on vinyl, CD and download via Bella Union and can be preordered via their web store.

To coincide with the album release they play London Black's (February 20, 7/8pm sets), Brighton Bella Union Shop (21, 6pm), London Rough Trade East (24, 7pm) and Newcastle Reflex Records (27,

They tour in April calling at Leeds Brudenell (2), Manchester Deaf Institute (3), Newcastle Boiler Shop (4), London Earth (15), Brighton Patterns (16), Exeter Phoenix (17), Nottingham Bodega (18), Birmingham Castle And Falcon (22), Norwich Waterfront Studio (23), Cambridge Portland Arms (24), Bristol Thekla (25), Glasgow King Tut's Wah Wah Hut (30), Belfast Sports Club (May 1) and Dublin Lost Lane (2).

Lanterns On The Lake's official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.

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