Hammock: Mysterium
Hammock Music

Hammock has an uncanny talent for retaining its identity whether the music in play is modern-day shoegaze, as exemplified by Everything and Nothing, the group's 2016 homage to The Cure, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Cocteau Twins, or, as in the present case, modern classical. There's a good reason why Mysterium, the Nashville group's eighth album since its 2003 founding, assumes the form of a classical requiem: the release is dedicated to Hammock co-founder Marc Byrd's nephew Clark Kern (1995-2016), who died from the tumor strain Neurofibromatosis 2 (NF2). Though Mysterium signifies a return to the tone of 2013's elegiac Oblivion Hymns, the new recording, a powerfully emotive blend of modern classical, ambient, and choral music, goes deeper. In keeping with its memorial theme, the mood is predominantly solemn, but Byrd and Andrew Thompson ensure vestiges of hope are present, too.

To help deal with the grief brought on by Kern's passing, Byrd drew solace from choral works by Nikolaï Korniev, Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, and Morten Lauridsen, all of who proved inspirational for the making of Mysterium. As hushed as the music is, large-scale resources were involved in its production: in addition to contributions from Matt Slocum and Ken Lewis (who play cello and drums, respectively, on “This is Not Enough (Epilogue)”) and Slow Meadow's Matt Kidd (who co-wrote “When the Body Breaks” and whose piano playing enhances the music's serenity on four songs), Mysterium includes vocals by the forty-two-member Budapest Art Choir and strings and horns from the Nashville Recording Orchestra. Such resources could have resulted in a heavy-handed production, but that's not the case here: the hour-long album is distinguished by music of nuance, grandeur, and incredible emotional resonance. Irony has no place in music so open-hearted.

The project's stately tone is asserted immediately by “Now and Not Yet” when plaintive strings, wordless choral vocals, and ambient guitar-generated atmospheres collectively establish an air of reverence. The tracks that follow perpetuate the quietly majestic character of that opener whilst presenting subtle variations on the theme. As informed as the project is by strings and choral singing, there are moments that are clearly identifiable as Hammock; at the start of “Things of Beauty Burn,” for example, the group's signature guitar textures dominate, and “For My Sister” exudes a slow-burning elegance characteristic of the group. As Mysterium approaches its end, hints of light break through during the measured uplift of “Elegy,” after which the lilting “This Is Not Enough (Epilogue),” replete with hushed vocals, electric guitars, and drums, caps the album with the most Hammock-like performance (plus a rather Sigur Rós-like climax), perhaps an intimation of what the next release might bring. Just as Byrd was comforted by other composers' choral works when his nephew died, one imagines Marc's sister Angela and her family will draw as much if not even greater comfort from this beautiful, heartfelt tribute.

September 2017