Sligo's Anthony Wall records as Milk Harbour and delivers an impressive first album
Anthony Wall first came to our attention when we signed Undercover Martians. He had recorded their debut single Francesca, with the band all playing in one room and using only a single microphone. Have a listen - the quality is remarkable when you consider the tortuous recording process which some artists go through. He joked at the time that yes, I did it all with one microphone but you should have seen how long it took me to get it in the right place. Looking at his work since then it is clear that he applies this painstaking ethic to all he does.
His backstory informs this as he relates -
"... music slipped back into hobby territory but I kept writing and tinkering away and my skills and experience as an audio engineer grew. This was helped by a number of years working as a contractor with NBC on their Olympic Games broadcasts. When you've worked on a project that big under that much pressure everything else seems easy. The crew won Emmy awards for our work on the London and Sochi games and I apply the work ethic I learned on that job to everything else I've done since."
Now settled back on the West Coast of Ireland, since early 2020 he has been recording his own tracks under the seaport-referencing moniker. He takes up the story - "Milk Harbour is me reclaiming my love of music after years of burnout from the disappointments of my early attempts to make music more than a hobby. I played in bands at the very end of the old music industry model where the industry was still trying to figure out what the future looked like. It was endlessly frustrating as things that once seemed vital, like sending demos to labels or getting played on the radio became less and less important but nothing was filling the vacuum. And that was the system that I had been raised believing in."
Instead of bemoaning this change in model, he has positively embraced it, taking full ownership of his abilities as a songwriter, producer and recording engineer. He released one track a month in 2020 and these are now remixed, remastered and collected together as Milk Harbour vol. 1. As a bonus, there is a podcast 'The Milk Harbour Process' to accompany each release and give an insight into the writing and production of each track. Work shy he is not.
There is a Turkish idiom which translates as 'milk port' meaning calm or peaceful. Closer to home, legend has it that fierce and hostile creatures called Formorians lived on islands off the West coast of Ireland. Amongst many devilish demands, they required a daily delivery of milk from this Sligo harbour. So is the alias a peaceful home place for Wall's previous rock proclivities or a jumping off point for new sonic adventures? Well on this evidence some of each.
The album opens with three excellent tracks which definitely fall in to the latter category. Butterfly crackles into life with on-trend vinyl noise. Synths and drum machines quickly make it clear we're not in straightforward rock territory here - this is more Aphex Twin than Anthrax. Swirling arpeggios drive the track into All Things To All Men, the track which started the whole Milk Harbour project. The insistent electric piano is reminiscent of Kid A era Radiohead and the vocals, drenched in reverb and pleasingly placed far back in the mix, give us our first hint of Wall's lyrical concerns:
I was empty like a prayer book, like a long look at a dusty bone
I was silent like a stoplight, like a bad night in a broken home
We're not in vacuous love song land here.
Leave features dramatic vocals from Arina Kuzmiceva and wouldn't be out of place on daytime radio. For an album with darkness at it heart, Arina spells it out:
It's so dark I can barely see
It's so dark I can barely breathe
I just want the dark to leave
The sparse production suits it well - personally I could have done without the keyboard stabs intruding on the reverb-drenched solitude but it's a great track. As Wall says "... the song is the star. Once written, it's your responsibility to do your absolute best by it."
Blood In My Eyes, although still featuring synths is an altogether more straightforward rock track. The vocals are strong and bring Ian Astbury to mind but the track doesn't have the interest of the preceding three. But wait - what have we here? 1981 is nominative determinism in musical form. Coming on like a less bombastic Simple Minds, 80s style Giorgio Moroder disco arpeggios lead us into a gorgeous chorus washed over by analog waves. A standout.
Wall himself says:
"...bands shouldn't be afraid to work in different genres. This used to be common practice and I often wonder why it isn't so much now. Maybe people get hung up on their influences or chasing a market? Either way I think it's the responsibility of the artist to push the form. There are no rules anymore"
I know that he is looking to mix up styles on Vol. 1. That is laudable however it doesn't always work and I feel Desperate Twins is a pedestrian example of that. The upside is that if you don't like one song, the likelihood is that you won't have to wait long for one that you do. And sure enough along comes This Is The House - Scott Walker style torch song, lyrics of a Nick Cave vibe. Then another standout - The Winding Sheet with its Irish trad like opening, beautiful Teresa Galvin vocals and maintaining its Mark Lanegan style intensity right to the end. And another! My only quibble with the affecting piano-led Song For Frances is that maybe it should have closed the album out.
As it is the final trio - Go To The Water, The Deal and A Word On Lions - encapsulate the eclectic nature of the album. A folky Americana song of regret, a Divine Comedy meets Nick Cave tale of good and evil and a great (and unexpected of course!) spoken word piece on dealing with the internal demons which can lead you astray.
As I'm sure Wall knows all too well, modern music is a crowded and competitive field. Not just songs but also songwriters have the impermanence of May ice on mountains. All someone entering into this world can do is be true to themselves and remain authentic. It has to be an existential existence.
Our songsmith is candid about this: "If you're not doing this for love you're going to end up frustrated and disappointed. Back in the day I was chasing fame and while I would still welcome fame and fortune with open arms if nothing else, I'm fiercely proud of this collection of songs. And they really seem to resonate with people which means I've done my job."
While for me there are a couple of tracks which prevent this album from being a completely cohesive whole, it is a beautifully crafted and produced set of songs with some real standout moments and a couple of surprise twists. And the lyrics are deliciously dark and thoughtful throughout - like finding a pub with great Guinness and great craic. I hope vol 1 implies there is a vol 2.
The album is available as a digital download on Bandcamp here