Hammock – Departure Songs
Posted In: Hammock, Hammock - Departure Songs, Matt Gilley
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Hammock’s Departure Songs is their most ambitious project yet. And this from a band whose last two full lengths are like the one-two punch of a supernova, Maybe They Will Sing for us Tomorrow collapsing their sound inwards to its bare elements, before exploding out into the majestic Chasing After Shadows… Living with the Ghosts. Departure Songs takes two huge risks. First, it is a double album, failed examples of which are littered throughout musical history. Second, it is structured around a cycle of songs, and indictments of ambient/post-rock bands using vocals are just as littered throughout experimental music criticism. But with Hammock’s taste for the epic and theatrical, perhaps it was inevitable that they would attempt a project like this.
The album, unsurprisingly, leans towards Hammock’s most expansive side. Crystalline guitars chime like bells; their trademark dream-like caresses of ambience stretch the songs out into an almost incomprehensible widescreen; distant drums roll from speaker to speaker, all reverberating snares and ringing crash cymbals. There are quieter moments, however. “Awakened, He Heard Only Silence” could be taken straight from Maybe They Will Sing. “Frailty (For the Dearly Departed)” centres on mournful, minimal piano and strings, leaving Hammock’s native guitars in the background. At times it could be a lost Sigur Rós instrumental, a trait continued by the organ and stolid percussion of the next track.
Those strings, played by Love Sponge, are one of the highlights of the album. Their organic tones work as a grounding force amongst the celestial, effects-laden atmospheres. When they appear in their raw, natural form they add a crucial touch of everyday humanity to an album that almost constantly gazes longingly away from the earth. Their solo ending of “Cold Front” is an early highlight, a perfect balance of abstract expanse and carefully interlocking mobility that can hardly be achieved by anything but a strings group.
I imagine that the best way to listen to Departure Songs is in surround sound with your eyes closed, letting all the music’s cinematic qualities play in your head to their full potential. Narrative has always been central to Hammock’s music (as exemplified by the stunning video for “Breathturn” from Chasing After Shadows…) and Departure Songs runs with the concept.
The themes are predictable – love, death, repetition. After “Ten Thousand Years Won’t Save Your Life” evokes a crushing inability to escape a recurring pattern, the album builds to an early climax in “Tonight we Burn like Stars that Never Die”. Here the thought of repetition is turned into one of glorious bliss, the title line being repeated emphatically over a soaring instrumental that constantly yearns to soar higher. Later in the album, “(Let’s Kiss) While All the Stars are Falling Down” recycles a melody “Tonight we Burn”. If the stars are lovers that burned like those in the earlier song, this time the voice seems desperate not fall himself.
The vocals, from Marc Byrd and his wife Christy, are rendered adeptly. They are rarely loud enough to drown out the other instruments, but remain strong and clear. Marc’s strangely androgynous falsetto and Christy’s haunting tones fit well into Hammock’s musical frame, as if they are trying hard to be otherworldly, but can’t quite break into orbit.
Throughout these changing scenes, the emotions of the music remain remarkably similar. There are no wild swings into darkness and despair as could be expected from the subject matter, and this, oddly perhaps, is how Hammock prevent their predictable themes from making a predictable narrative. The relentless, epic ethereality matches the consistently hyperbolic and unrealistically grand images of the song titles and lyrics. Together, they give the album the mythic quality of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or other epic poems. The operatic romanticisation of death and sadness suits Hammock perfectly, as the album’s press release aptly says, their music is ‘ecstasy through exquisite sadness’. Even the moments of abject mourning, like the desolate cello that concludes “Tornado Warning”, have a glorious beauty, like gazing out from the ridge of a mountain and feeling profoundly alone and small, but overwhelmed by the view.
Departure Songs is probably the closest thing to an ambient/post-rock opera anyone has ever written, and if anyone is ever going to write one, it’ll probably be Hammock. The weight of ambition hangs on the album but Hammock carry it with confidence. Where their previous albums have had at least some fragility, and plenty of humanity, Departure deals almost solely in theatrical grandeur.
- Matt Gilley for Fluid Radio