Hammock: Oblivion Hymns
Hammock Music

There's always been a pronouncedly symphonic dimension to Hammock's music, but to a large degree its presence has been more figurative, even if strings have physically appeared within their music before (one thinks, for example, of 2010's Chasing After Shadows… Living with the Ghosts, which included a horn section, string quartet, and live drums). But with their latest collection, Oblivion Hymns, guitarists Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson have taken a quite literal symphonic plunge into neo-classical music by eschewing drums and most other post-rock associated sounds and featuring instead strings (courtesy of the Love Sponge Quartet), a children's choir, and a stirring vocal by Timothy Showalter on the hymnal closer (accordion, French horn, and glockenspiel also surface). Hymnal is, in fact, a word one could apply to the entire album, in both tone and, on occasion, style.

Anyone familiar with Stars of the Lid will probably be reminded of the group while basking in the radiance of the album's shimmering opener, “My Mind Was a Fog… My Heart Became a Bomb.” Even at this early stage, the album's character is sharply defined in the music's meditative, slow-moving blend of strings and guitar washes, and the nine tracks that follow do little to alter that impression. “Then the Quiet Explosion” achieves a kind of hushed grandeur in its merging of children's choir and strings with ambient guitar and piano atmospherics, while dramatic, strings-drenched moodscapes like “Like a Valley With No Echo,” “Holding Your Absence,” and “I Could Hear the Water at the Edge of All Things” envelop the listener in sonic splendour for minutes on end. Ending the album on a wave of soaring uplift with the hauntingly beautiful vocal setting “Tres Dominé” seems like some kind of masterstroke, especially when its song form contrasts so markedly with what precedes it and when Showalter delivers the lines with such grace. Presented with such moments on the fifty-seven-minute album, one might very well feel as if one is, in keeping with the track title, “Turning Into Tiny Particles… Floating Through Empty Space.”

There's always a risk that the addition of symphonic resources to a recording will result in music that's overblown and drowning in pretension. That's not the case here: the children's choir is used judiciously, and the strings are woven into the material in such a way that they complement the guitar and keyboard textures and enhance the dramatic scope of the material. Byrd and Thompson are careful, in other words, about making sure the added sounds are used purposefully rather than indulgently.

It's conceivable that some long-time Hammock fans might grumble about seeing the group distance itself so far from the shoegaze and post-rock genres with which its music has been associated; further to that, only time will tell whether Oblivion Hymns is a temporary detour into full-blown symphonic territory or a permanent move. On that note, it might be worth recalling that previous Hammock recordings have deviated from the expected path, too, such as Longest Year, a beat-less and wordless EP that appeared in 2010. Regardless, those with open ears will find much to appreciate about the new recording, especially when so much of it is so soul-stirring. It certainly shows Byrd and Thompson have traveled far and experienced much since Hammock's 2005 debut Kenotic.

March 2014