‘All deserts have stories. All open lands and empty seas have songs that they alone sing late into the night.’
It’s not even three minutes, but watching “Salt Flats” makes my skin crawl like nothing else has managed to this year. Calling it a ‘music video’ would be grievously reductive. The visual is not to accompany the music; the music wouldn’t exist without it. It doesn’t show caricatures; it shows people. We see the harshness and beauty of their habitat; and in the music, we hear their cohesion and fragility. For a storm is coming.
Music can be a window or a mirror, offering either exposure to other worlds or reflections of ourselves. The compositions of Luke Howard have stayed in the latter ~ particularly with last year’s Open Heart Story, a semi-autobiographical musing on childhood and mortality. The Sand That Ate the Sea is very much a window. In collaboration with aspiring filmmaker Matthew Thorne, Howard reveals the breathtaking expanse of the desert juxtaposed with the quiet intimacy of a remote opal mining town, Andamooka, in South Australia, on its cusp. Howard used a short film captured by Thorne to inspire formative ideas, then withdrew to breath life in them in solitude. He didn’t wish to write a soundtrack with the visual as a guardrail. (The pair discuss the project here.)
The result is the most expansive yet focused record of Howard’s catalogue. Bordering on drone in places, the set is quiet, pensive and languid. The composer is rarely in a hurry, but the sedateness here is a marked change of pace nonetheless; the swiftest of the short, many tracks are feathers carried on a faint breeze, the slowest are sand dunes constantly but imperceptibly undulating with the winds. Weather is the constant source. And as the community of Andamooka is facing the menace of a great storm, this almost-stillness conveys the calm before. String lines labour ponderously on notes; the piano pauses for composure between chords (listen to that extended rest before the final, faintly ominous chord of “Dinner Dance”). Discreet guitar lines vary between spacious tremolo and more textural grittiness (“Sisyphus”), as if mimicking the flight of a drone camera casting its eye down on the red sand below.
Most enticing of all, wordless vocals appear with sufficient regularity to not exactly surprise but always palpably enhance these wide-angle soundscapes. At Thorne’s urging, Howard experimented with vocal composition for the first time, recruiting UK-based Shards and Australian-Israeli singer Lior to breathe humanity into this vacuous terrain. They between them convey the winds of the desert, with gossamer harmonies that float just out of reach (as in “Light Ascending”); but they also through the occasional more forceful delivery bare the souls of the nearby inhabitants (“Salt Flats”). This latter aspect crescendos in final track “Future Coda”, which sees Lior take the baton from the piano to distill in one delicate but urgent vocal line all the hopes and fears of a community awaiting an event could turn their lives upside down. (Think Clare Torry’s performance in The Great Gig in the Sky ~ more restrained than that but no less profound.) In these passages does the music carry an evangelical aura ~ the sense of deep reverence for the primacy of the desert, for its ability to instill fear and fascination in equal measure, and for the lost souls who have wandered it. People are transient, the desert endures.
‘This place here is the only place. You can feel how old it is in everything. In the land, in the sky, in the people.’
These are themes touched on by Thorne’s film, which centers on a man coming to terms with the disappearance long ago of his father, in a desert storm. We digest this story not in a complete, linear fashion but partially, in clips presumably extracted from longer scenes to form discrete ‘music videos’ for the singles released so far (and from where I’ve taken the above quotes). Through shots both serene and surreal as well as people’s interactions and snatches of dialogue, the story that we merely glimpse adds earthy tangibility to the translucent aural canopy.
But make no mistake: This is an absolute triumph of a record on its own, cohesive and focused to an extent not evident since 2014’s wonderful Two & One, yet evolved from that record in an enchanting way. The usually introspective Howard here shines a light on a landscape in all its ruthless beauty, and on the plight of others borne in its grip. In doing so, he has broadened his compositions yet still conveys his trademark vital intimacy, capturing the quiet solemnity of a people awaiting their fate, singing songs late into the night. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)