All the best horror movie directors know that less is more when you’re trying to put the heebies on people. The creak on the stair and the howl in the night – that’s the real terror, much scarier than actual blood and guts because the imagination does the heavy lifting, dreaming up a fate far worse than any hack with a camera could.
Dave Clarkson gets that too, as proved by the four tracks on Music for Lighthouses. As enigmatic as the structures they celebrate, these pieces are ominous sound collages, created from field recordings gathered from the UK’s north-western coast combined with analogue synth murmurs and other minimal instrumentation.
Although inspired by memories of childhood, the album is a much more eerie and unsettling listen than you might expect. The less-is-more aesthetic helps create the mood of unease, with sounds hovering on the just within hearing, like shadows that linger at the edges of vision. It’s a fine antidote to much of the ponderous ‘dark ambient’ music currently in circulation, whose melodramatic sound design resembles pantomime rather than true blood-chilling freakiness.
Clarkson is something of a veteran of the underground music scene, with a discography that stretches back to his cassette works under the Central Processing moniker in the 1980s. Since then he’s released a gaggle of CDs as Illuminati, and has recently started with working with Alistair Stray in an abrasive duo called Psychic Frequencies. The latter’s October 2014 release, Projecting Disorder, is well worth investigation.
The restraint and well-judged topology of the compositions on Music for Lighthouses are, no doubt, partially a result of this experience, enabling Clarkson to create introverted, almost claustrophobic soundscapes in which the internal and external worlds seem to merge. Sounds that you’d think would be comforting – the crash of waves on the beach, the breeze, the cawing of gulls – are inverted, instead becoming harbingers of doom.
In The Whistling Sands, the sounds of the sea and the wind, gathered from the Leasowe coast in Merseyside, become oppressive shrouds for echoing whistles and electronic sizzles. Clarkson took his inspiration for this track from MR James’s 1903 story, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and this piece perfectly embodies the mysterious atmosphere of that story (and its 1968 film adaptation), part horror tale and part chronicle of mental collapse.
It’s so desolate, in fact, that the seagull calls heralding the start of the following track, Hilbre Island 53.375 N 3.2175 W, seem shockingly dissonant, erupting with an almost metallic burst of noise. Once the shock of these sounds has faded, however, this piece is relatively tranquil. The field recordings – this time of the Hilbre Island nature reserve – are interwoven with simple melodies from the Bloom generative music app and occasional percussion and chime interventions. Still, I can’t help finding the constant gull noise a tad unnerving, a feeling accentuated by an occasional hollow booming sound in the background (probably the wind, but you never know, right?).
Any respite from anxiety is only temporary, however, as the second half of the album brings the fragile walls of reality crashing down. In Lantern to Black Sea, heavily echo-ed drum kicks and synthetic electronic tones disrupt the peaceful wave sounds. It is like being in some kind of prison, similar to that in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where an illusion of bucolic peace is ruptured to show the coercive forces beneath.
Moments of lightness, when they do come, only accentuate the sense of existential dread. The simple glockenspiel melody in Longing and Loneliness, for example, is disconcerting rather than comforting, a ghost from the recesses of memory. And while Clarkson’s own notes to this piece position it as soundtrack to the everyday duties of the lighthouse keeper – “trimming the wicks, replenishing fuel…climbing the stairs…..winding clockworks , cleaning lenses, windows…. climbing the stairs” – I can’t help feeling that this mundanity is hiding something much scarier, the long guitar phase and reedy rustle heralding an oncoming psychological storm.