One of the many projects that spun out of defunct Leeds-based band Hood, Anglo/American collective Memory Drawings employs an unusual combination of hammered dulcimer and guitar. Phantom Lights started life as a limited-run tour CDr, and now has been given new life by Sound in Silence.
Phantom Lights creates a kind of folk music detached from a defined location. While Richard Adams’ prolific output with Hood and The Declining Winter spans lo-fi indie, post-rock, and Kid A-style folk-electronic experiments, the album’s lyrics, artwork and delivery root it in rural northern England. Violinist Sarah Kemp’s work with Newcastle-based Lanterns on the Lake and Brave Timbers evokes similar pretty, slightly paranoid English pastoral scenes. This sound permeates through Phantom Lights, but the dulcimer, more often associated with musical traditions of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, cuts the anchor of ‘Englishness’ and sets the group’s sound adrift. When western bands bands incorporate instruments not traditionally found in contemporary rock music, they often run the risk of descending into unsympathetic pastiche. However, Joel Hanson’s hammered dulcimer is a graceful exploration of the instrument’s collaborative and expressive potential. After three albums and two EPs, the dulcimer continues to lend the band a unique tone: a vibrant, earthy force used to breathtaking effect.
Opener ‘The Other Side’, a contemplative, drum-free piece, focuses on the interplay between guitar and dulcimer. Complemented by wordless vocals and a bed of sweeping and pretty ambient drones, the track is perhaps the EP’s finest moment. The more rhythmic ‘Two Rooms’ focuses on that interplay again but, as the track approaches its centre, the pace slows for four bars. On the other side of this playful musical semicolon, the earlier instrumentation re-emerges strengthened by Kemp’s violin.
The EP’s title track incorporates a splashy drum section and a simple accordion melody. “Phantom Lights” is a brilliant, rhythm-led piece that would feel at home on any of Adams’ projects. The track feels less rigid in composition than the rest of the EP, coming across as a jam session between this disparate collection of instruments. This bewitching formula showcases the band at its strongest.
The EP features a remix of The Nearest Exit highlight ‘There is a Last Time for Everything’ by Bristolian electronic producer Barnaby Carter. Though Memory Drawings have often been open to remixes, releasing each of their albums with a second disc of reworked versions, the inclusion of this remix between two new tracks rather than as the final track is an unusual change of pace. Ordering the tracks like this suggests an intentionality to present ‘Captivated’ as the EP’s, and possibly the group’s, swansong – on its original release in the summer of 2018, Memory Drawings alluded to Phantom Lights as being their last before a hiatus, or even disbandment.
The only track on Phantom Lights to feature lyrics, ‘Captivated’ places breathy, reverb-soaked vocals at the fore. Lyrics are a rare outing for the group, making the track feel like a test of the waters for future works. One can only hope that Phantom Lights doesn’t represent the closing of the book. This release suggests there are still a lot of stories left to be told. (Jack Cooper)