I started writing this site in 2012, but I actually didn’t listen to Hammock until…hmm, late 2016 maybe — around the time I stopped writing the blog. So, naturally, I never wrote about this duo during Make Your Own Taste’s brief heyday. Considering that this music is basically tailor-made for me and is by no means hard to come across, how did I not actually listen Hammock ten years before? I mean, they even collaborated with members of The Church, my high-school idols!
Original readers here will probably know I like to mix a small element of the personal in with my reviews, a little autobiographical element. And much of what I write is meant to be a message of gratitude to musicians who have provided me with solace as I navigate this vale of tears (sob!).
Well, this one’s a confessional of sorts. Being of a certain age (Gex X) and being a musician since the nineties, and frankly not being very successful in getting other humans to listen to my music, I developed a sort of a complex over time. Not jealousy per se; I would never begrudge a successful act that makes similar music to my own — and is actually good at it — its success. At least I don’t think so. It was more, I guess, that I feared hearing them might remind me of all the effort I didn’t put into trying to promote my music better, or the luck I felt I didn’t have along the way. It’s a base instinct: they have what I wanted, and I’m sad. Or, to put it nicely, they were supposedly living a present I once dreamed of. So there were all kinds of reasonably prominent musical acts of my generation that I studiously avoided.
I finally started to mature (rather too late, it turns out) and realize that, to paraphrase George and Jerry from a Seinfeld episode, I wasn’t actually a grown-up…these feelings of mine, this resentment against fate kept me from enjoying and supporting worthwhile things, were totally childish. I was missing out on a world of music due to my own bitterness about not being better known in my field of endeavour. So I amended that and am now much happier both with my lot and with some of the great music that enriches my life.
And I bought me a Hammock album, Everything and Nothing, got totally swept up in it, started making up for lost time, and the rest is history! All the albums I talk about here in capsule form are part of my regular listening diet.
I’m not going to tire myself or you out with some big biography that you can look up elsewhere; Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson (ah, another talented Thompson — we’re a great bunch) are a couple of Nashville-based guys who did their time in alternative rock bands before starting their own project, one that mixes together all the “ethereal” genres: dream pop, ambient, shoegaze, modern classical, etc. It’s usually guitar-based, sometimes abstract, sometimes song-based, but always totally compelling. They tend to work in three styles: post-rock/neo-psych songs and instrumentals, gently melodic; full-on guitar ambient; and pieces that could be considered more “modern classical” (hate that term, but people use it).
The world is chock-a-block with musicians who try to/claim to make celestially beautiful music, and many of them are successful in doing that. But Hammock’s discography could be considered a template for how to do that properly; they may have had luck, but they also have a real, tangible talent for this stuff. They find a way to tap into that deepest spiritual yearning for wholeness that underpins all of our joys and sorrows, and transform it into ecstatic sound. This isn’t space rock — it’s the inner landscape of our soul. It reminds us that far underneath our corrupted, worldly exteriors, we are all fundamentally good and capable and worthy of love.
We’re lucky to have these guys. I mean, if you are looking for venomous darkness, you’ll have to go elsewhere, but we all have our thing we’re good at.
It’s also noteworthy that unlike a lot of other acts in the “post-rock” field, they know how to avoid repeating and belaboring their signature sounds; after a run of albums in a particular style, they move on to trying something new with it. Hence, there’s been an evolution from a more rock-based style toward more abstract, impressionistic classical-influenced sounds, particularly a wonderful use of strings and choral vocals. But, and this is important, not always sounding “soundtracky”, which is something us ambient types often get accused of by nonbelievers.
The third of their most recent trilogy of albums, titled Silencia, will be released Nov 15/2019, so you may be rewarded with my impressions of that too once I pick up a copy.
If you have even the slightest interest in the sort of music I describe here, then Hammock’s discography, or at least certain key albums, is most definitely essential listening. Oh, and they release their own music, which is quite admirable in my books.
And I do feel much more grown-up now. Acceptance works!
The first album is very good but not as polished sonically as what was to come after, and the elements of the duo’s signature sound are sort of coming together. I mean, I’m one to talk about something not being super hi-fi… so yeah, anyway, it’s really beautiful but a little more stripped-down than what came after; sounds like fewer layers as well. The drum sounds are not as good as on later albums, and there’s some electronica-type stuff that is just okay. But there are some lovely touches like the violin on “Blankets of Night,” and those gorgeous guitar blankets are already in place. Kenotic definitely creates the blueprints for the career that would follow. Like all their albums, it’s long, which gives you your money’s worth!
Kenotic is a pretty darn good album, but frankly, the sonic and compositional leap between that one and this one is notable, like someone slapped a growth hormone into their sound. This doesn’t sound “formative” or anything like that — this baby is fully formed! And right from the opener, “I Can Almost See You,” with its elegant piano and swells of guitar, you know you’re in for something special. I suppose there’s a touch less variety on this one than you find on some other Hammock albums, this being very much a neo-psych affair focused on gentle, simple guitar melodies and effects that goes down nicely after some later period Church. Like most Hammock albums, it’s also long, generous helping. I find it most successful on the ambient tracks like “When the Sky Pours Down Like a Fountain,” which sound very much like the tracks on the Sleepover Series albums.
I suppose I find this one of the lesser albums, though to put that in perspective, it’s still better than pretty well anything else in the genre(s). Like the previous album, it’s primarily guitar-based, and this time much more ambient than rock; textures are more spacious and allowed to stretch out, and there’s no drumming to even pretend any of this is rock music; it’s closer to Stars of the Lid than to any rock band. Hence, if you treat it like anything but an ambient music experience, you might not find it so interesting. If you do like ambient music, it will be a very welcome addition to your collection. Amongst the pieces here, the beautifullest, in my opinion, is “This Kind of Life Keeps Breaking Your Heart,” for what it’s worth.
Hammock added the rock elements back on this album, which is very pleasant but might perhaps be best viewed as the (very impressive) warmup for Departure Songs. That’s not to say it isn’t great…for the most part it’s a return to the chiming, wind-swept neo-psych of the second album, but with more of the ambient elements from Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow, as on the album’s really stunning highlight, “Little Fly/Mouchette,” which is catchy as hell for an instrumental. Those chiming, swelling, delicately roaring guitars really do transport you to a better world. It’s like, make all my relatives sit and listen to this at my funeral good (right after they have to listen to my own entire discography, of course — even if it takes days!). A couple of tracks show the duo’s occasional flirtations with 6/8 time…they really seem to dig the fairytale feel that brings. Oh, and one of their best songs (meaning songs with words) is “You Lost the Starlight in Your Eyes.” It’s got a prog-rock length of over nine minutes, goes through several sections, and contains lyrics dripping with love and empathy (“All the nights we cried and cried/You lost the starlight in your eyes”). What’s not to like here?
Many would probably think and agree that this is the definitive Hammock album, combining all the elements that make this music so superb, but definitely with an extra epic frosting on top. It’s also a very long album, but you ain’t gonna find me complaining. Finding highlights in all this spacy goodness is actually a bit difficult, but from the first notes of “Cold Front,” as on the second album’s opener, you know you better strap yourself in for an emotional journey. And while I favour instrumentals, many of Hammock’s best songs are on this album, like “(Tonight) We Burn Like Stars That Never Die”, a stunning mid-tempo explosion of shoegaze guitar. Strings really start to take their rightful place in the band’s sound on tracks like “Frailty (For the Dearly Departed)”, and the guitars that aren’t distorted are soooo dang chimy, like the charming space alien Roger McGuinn always wished he could be. As far as dream-pop and shoegaze go, this really should be considered a genre-defining album. Also noteworthy is the fact that again, all those nice guitars I describe are definitely influenced very much by The Church, which is a good thing.
This album probably represents the biggest and most dramatic shift in style for Hammock. Yes, the spacy guitar parts are there, and the pianos, but now married to swelling strings and celestial choirs. The result is what can only be called a totally essential post-rock album that matches anything Sigur Rós has done in its heavenliness. And it’s something of a road map to later work. The album is justly very well known for the celestial “Then the Quiet Explosion” and its choral vocals (is that a children’s choir?). Another nice touch is the closing “Tres Dominé,” which sounds like an American folk hymn and is sung well by guest Timothy Showalter. I guess I’m not saying too much about this one, but it actually is a competitor for the title of Hammock’s best album, because it combines all the elements that make their music so appealing. If you don’t like this one, not only is this not the band for you, but you also probably lack a pulse.
So as noted, late in 2016 I decided to stop being a dingus and to give Hammock a try. I listened along, thinking, This is really nice music, with some tracks being more to my exact taste than others. Then I got toward the end and the track titled “Unspoken,” which features the vocals of Christine Byrd, a very simple but heart-piercing lyric, and a yearning, lullabyish melody, and I lost my proverbial shit, so to speak. I played that song something like 10 times a day for a week. I was actually in a period of mourning over a very sudden loss not long afterward, and I have to say that song really helped me during that time. That’s what hooked me. In retrospect, the album is a nice blend of the song-based stuff heard on Departure Songs with instrumental stuff, but more melodic dream-pop than ambient per se. There’s a bit less overwhelming use of reverb on some songs…a sonic tightness other albums didn’t possess, for lack of a better word. I’m not sure they needed to do that, but it’s still appealing. Other highlights are the really pretty, piano-led “Marathon Boy” and the opening swoon of “Turn Away and Return.” For song lovers, there are a few harder-edged numbers like “We Were So Young.” I’d say if you were looking for a Hammock starter kit, this album or Departure Songs are probably the place to start.
Not one to rest on their laurels, Byrd and my very, very distant relative Thompson conceived of a trilogy of albums on the theme of loss (the loss of a close friend of Byrd’s) that should probably be considered an extension and evolution of their Oblivion Hymns sound, taking the impressionistic classical elements and building on that rather than relying on neo-psych and dream pop guitar textures. The result is a very moving selection of modern classical sprinkled with occasional songs; in a way it takes them back to their more ambient roots as well. Album one feels like Hammock made an album with Arvo Pärt in places! The choir on “Now And Not Yet,” for example, sounds very classical compared with Oblivion Hymns. Prominent use of piano and strings also makes this album feel very much like chamber music rather than rock…but some of the most emotional chamber music you’ll ever hear. A quiet intensity just burns through these pieces. And just check out the soaring refrain on the song “I Would Give My Breath Away”...you will NOT hear anything more beautiful in your lifetime.
The second album of this trilogy somewhat picks up where the first left off. The band claims there’s more lightness in this one…if they say so! I guess I can feel a slight uplift, perhaps a greater sense of peace and less of mourning. But again, this album is characterized by swelling strings and echoing pianos, though subtle rock elements have returned on tracks like “Scattering Light,” which fits the duo’s signature sound, so I guess it could be said this album represents a slight return to former pastures, but in a much more subtle, even more thoughtful and reflective way. It’s like “grown-up Hammock” or something. Any way you slice it, there’s certainly no drop-off in quality…just check out “Clothed With Sky” and its combination of elegiac piano, strings, and subtle ambient sounds.
The third part of this latest trilogy we await with bated breath as of time of writing!
Hammock has released a lot of EPs and one-offs, and this gathers them. It’s as good any studio album, particularly the guitar-bient EP North West East South, which is some of the loveliest guitar ambient you’ll ever hear. Other notable tracks are the collaboration with The Church’s Tim Powles and Steve Kilbey, and a nice cover of Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic.”
Sleepover Series vols 1 and 2
These two albums are full-on guitar ambient, hazier than on the main albums and definitely more the sort of thing you use for background, meditation, or sleeping. The first album‘s pieces are longer and dronier, while the second release‘s tracks are generally shorter and sweeter, with more chordal and tonal change going on. But both are really beautiful and definitely worth getting for ambient music listeners.
Columbus (movie soundtrack)
If you have not seen the movie, it’s a study of two characters in a quiet, leafy town famous for its architecture, but underneath the quiet conversations is a churn of strong, passionate emotion — much like Hammock’s music that was composed for the soundtrack. I actually felt the music was underused in the film, which is the opposite of what I usually think. Normally, I find lots of music intrusive and end up cursing the music supervisor. This music fits so well, and you get more of it on this short but very lovely album.