Feb 29, 2012
“I think the mind makes its own places…”
From ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens
The first thing to consider when approaching August Stars’ fearsome new EP ‘Invisible in the Dusk’ is how to listen to it. Sebastien Wright’s dark ambient project is deeply entwined with, and inspired by, frost-bitten, horror-tinged train journeys through Northern England landscapes. Placing it on the lounge stereo feels wrong somehow, like being in a room with a broken window. But with a little set dressing – a Dickensian gas lamp here, a Jack ‘O’ Lantern there – Wright’s barely-there music, described on his blog as “journeys across the desolate Pennines, train rides through rainswept northern towns and the loneliness… which comes with moving to a new city…” can be teased and tamed to warm itself at the fire. And the Dusk reveals its spectral secrets…
Released towards the end of last year as the penultimate release on Leeds’ Make Mine Music records, August Stars’ eight track ‘longform EP’ follows in the barely-there footsteps of August Stars’ previous release in its reinvention of the Yorkshire landscape as a kind of topographical tuning fork. Wright’s vinylised tension headaches evocatively brings to mind a series of unsettling narratives as they reposition Yorkshire’s rattling landscapes of gritstone escarpments and factories as future noir musical instruments. An Eno-esque take on Byrne’s Playing the Building. But Byrne’s toy is playful and communitised. Like a half-glimpsed ghost in the hallway, ‘Invisible’s encounters are best experienced alone.
Wright name checks as many writers as musicians – including Derek Jarman, Paul Auster and J G Ballard – alongside the likes of Eno and Kraftwork. But I found scriptwriter Nigel Kneale‘s kitchen sink sci-fi an apposite reference. Kneale’s still resonant work repurposes post-war totems as high science – stone walls as recording mechanisms, spaceships buried in tube stations. Kneale had a love-hate relationship with the filmmaker John Carpenter – the latter engaged Kneale’s services for the Halloween sequel Season of the Witch before the project soured and Carpenter later credited his ‘quantum physicists investigate Satan’ horror Prince of Darkness to ‘Martin Quatermass’. ‘Invisible in the Dusk’s fifth track ‘Crooked Spire of St Mary and All Saints’ suggests a disturbing inversion of nature set at the quaking earth of a union between the two genre masters.
I was also reminded of the BBC’s majestic adaptation of Charles Dickens fatalist ghost story ‘The Signal Man’ from 1976. Preempting Carpenter in subject and tone, the film’s electronic score by composer Stephen Deutsch is used to soundtrack the mundane – a bell, a telegraph pole, a train tunnel – into vessels for fathomless horror in the imaginations of its addled protagonist. A startling antecedent to Wright’s train journeys and a terrifying comparison for the ‘wild harp’ of the Sheffield music makers’ own railtracked soundscapes.
The inspiration for Wright’s album – a train journey across a darkening pennines – lends itself to narrative conjecture but what’s fascinating is the flexibility of this inference. For instance, on first listen the looming ‘Crooked Spire of St Mary and All Saints’ (based on a real Chesterfield Church) feels like the fearful foe of Invisible in the Dusk. But like Samuel Bromley’s poem about the spire, there’s also a beauty to this unknowable giant…
“Its ponderous steeple, pillared in the sky Rises with twist in pyramidal form, And threatens danger to the timid eye That climbs in wonder.”
As day turns to night looking out the train window, the outside world is replaced by one’s own reflection. The title ‘Invisible in the Dusk’ seems a reference to the effect of the night on these evocative landscapes, but as the lights flicker on in the carriage it’s ourselves who are illuminated.
Part wordless audiobook, part concept album, its hymns to and cowerings from an uninterpretable nature offer rich, peaty slices of sound, the images and narratives they provoke as rich and dense as a thicket. But the main feeling I was left with was that of a connection. Strange and unknowable as these landscapes might be in the half light, they’re nothing without our fear. It’s our engagement that gives them (and Wright’s music) it’s power. Already half absent at the time of discovery; like Kneale’s jurassic spaceships brought to humming, maddening life by a workman’s drill, Wright’s thought experiments need our presence to sing.
Invisible In The Dusk is available to buy via Bandcamp here. There might be physical copies left via Sebastien’s website Under The Starry Stillness. A free companion digital download featuring extra tracks and alternative cuts is available to download for free here.