Three years after its initial run sold out in a matter of days, Plinth‘s classic Music for Smalls Lighthouse is finally getting the vinyl release it deserves, courtesy of Clay Pipe Music. Frances Castle is providing new artwork for the release, including a small illustrated booklet; the entire project has also been remastered.
Plinth (Michael Tanner) should be familiar to our readers; Little Winter, recorded as The Cloisters, was the first review we ever published, while his Collected Machine Music was high on our first end-of year chart. We’ve also reviewed Tanner’s work as part of United Bible Studies, Taskerlands and the Tyneham House Project. Music for Smalls Lighthouse (initially released by Second Language in 2010) is the work that vaulted him into the upper echelon. The following is a slightly modified version of the initial review, which first appeared at The Silent Ballet. Fun fact: this work, which contains the vocal contributions of Autumn Grieve, was initially compared to the work of Richard Skelton; Grieve and Skelton have since married, and now record as *AR.
What factors make Music for Smalls Lighthouse so special? The album tells a story whose outlines are visible even without the accompanying text; the field recordings are location-specific, and contribute to an overall mood; the composition is tender, the playing exquisite; and there’s little else to which it can be compared.
The album’s source material is simple, yet ferocious. In 1800, two men named Thomas, from “the fishing port of Solva in Wales”, are sent out to man the Smalls Lighthouse, “a tree-house in the middle of the ocean”. But in the rapidly-beating heart of a storm, one of the Thomases slips and dies. After building a coffin for his companion, and lashing him to the lighthouse, the other Thomas begins to have some terribly distressing dreams …
The words, by Tanner and Diane Allton, may be pure Cemetery Dance, but the music is more foreboding than frightening, more mournful than monstrous. The most dramatic aural moment arrives in “The Beckoning Arm” with the sound of a hammer against wood. This section is perfectly integrated, and is clearly superior to the 57-second “Makeshift Coffin” on the bonus disc (included as a download in the reissue), which demonstrates Tanner’s ability to make wise choices, even when it involves muting powerful sounds for the greater good.
Rain and wind are frequent guests. Crashing waves, creaking wood and leaking boards all play their part in furthering the narrative. Church bells toll at the beginning, middle and end, establishing a sense of completion: leaving port, remembering port, returning to port, albeit ravaged, white-haired and haunted. These field recordings are used for a purpose, not simply to provide ambience or to distract from musical deficiencies.
Tanner has chosen just the right instruments for the occasion. The album begins with a music box melody played on glockenspiel and dulcitone, the “once upon a time” that begins all good fables, even the horrific and Grimm. The opening track passes through many phases, seeming at times like the humblest of overtures, before landing on the still-peaceful shores of “Dawn Reflects in the East”. On this track, the cello and bowed strings take over, establishing a Richard Skelton-like atmosphere of layered nuance.
Tanner’s piano does not emerge until the middle of the album, and when it does, it sounds restless and a bit distracted, like waves formed by dual currents. Such agitation echoes the mindset of the protagonist. When the bell-toned instruments return, they attempt to match the piano’s melody, but fall prey to mild distortion as radio waves and a second, phantomlike piano melody swirl in the background. Sanity is being tugged by a very short string.
A foreign, unsettling noise – a “what is that?” noise – begins with a minute and a half left in the fourth track, as disturbing as a branch against a window, a scratching at the walls, a thump in the attic. Oh, someone is definitely losing it.
Despite its theme, Music for Smalls Lighthouse is the most curious of animals: a horror story with a conscience, with empathy, with tears. The concluding track, “Sirens”, wants to wrap its arms around the living Thomas, to draw him into the distraction of fantasy, if only to protect his mind. Autumn Grieve’s lovely, wordless voice is indeed siren-like, and one succumbs to its charms like a child to a lullaby. The album’s greatest ambient melodies unfold here, as if conveying a wish that everything will turn out all right, even while knowing that it probably won’t. The church bells toll, and the piano returns: now assured, now comforting, clear as a cloudless sky reflected in a placid sea, genuinely soothing and devoid of irony.
When looking for anticedents, few come to mind. Jasper TX’s Singing Stones and Last Days‘ The Safety of the North are this album’s closest relatives: albums that tell a tale of loss, harrowing or otherwise, but gently and with unguarded affection. We’ll likely never see a glut of similar albums, because they are so difficult to do well, without theatrics or pretense. But when they are done well, as is the case here, they stick in the mind like cherished guests in a cozy house. It’s not only their stories that we want to remember, but the ways in which they were told. (Richard Allen)