Album Review: Hammock, “Oblivion Hymns”

Oblivion Hymns

For me, an album’s cover art is a powerful thing, casting a record in kaleidoscopic primary colors or muted monochrome before you’ve even heard the music within. Likewise with song and album titles: they work together to synesthetically set the tone. First impressions matter.

I have seldom come across a record whose artwork and whose title so accurately convey its contents as post-rock ambient duo Hammock’s Oblivion Hymns (2013). The grayscale cover describes a plane littered with Rorschach shapes like islands in an ocean of white. Between the two, you get a pretty accurate preview of the album: oceans of synthesized strings, ebbing and flowing from gentle peak to gentle trough, occasionally washing up against the coastline of a suspension or a dissonance before receding. It’s headphone music for sure: quiet, gentle, ethereal.

That said, each individual track is distinctive, if you pay close attention. The titles help in this regard: “A Valley with No Echo” sounds appropriately grand and expansive; there’s an intimate, elegiac quality to “Holding Your Absence”; likewise, “I Could Hear the Water at the Edge of Things“ is distant and searching. It’s remarkable how Hammock communicate such subtle emotional shifts with such minimalistic materials. The immediate reference point would be other post-rock atmospherists such as Explosions in the Sky, but I’m not familiar enough to say. It reminds me a bit of the Paul Winter Consort, especially in its capacity to be deeply relaxing without being cloying or “new-agey,” or of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.”

Only the final track, “Tres Domine,” bucks the trend, not necessarily in a bad way, by introducing vocals and trumpet carrying a clear melody. Lovely stuff; it reminds me of Enya or Sting at his most ethereal (especially in the vocals), and makes me wonder what duo Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson’s work might sound like if it were geared toward more traditional song structures. My understanding is that they formed Hammock out of the Christian rock group Common Children. But as understated as it is, Oblivion Hymns is more expressive of the Great Mystery than just about anything you’ll hear on Christian radio.

Like the work of minimalist composers such as John Adams, Byrd and Thompson take time to unwind their evocative soundscapes. It’s not for everyone; I don’t see myself listening to it terribly often. But if you find joy in the likes of Sigur Rós and have some time to spend with it, I suspect you’ll find much to treasure here.

6/10

Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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