Hammock Hill: Departure Songs
In all likelihood, most discussions of Hammock Hill's epic fifth album, Departure Songs, will mention at some point the similarities between its sound and Sigur Ros's. It's true that on sonic grounds the recording sometimes sounds like a Sigur Ros production—after all, the double-disc set does come at you in wave upon uplifting wave of reverb-soaked guitars in a way that recalls the earlier Sigur Ros albums in particular—minus, that is, one of the outfit's key signatures: Jonsi Birgisson's vocals. In an instrumental moodscape like “Awakened, He Heard Only Silence,” however, the distance separating the two seems small indeed, despite the fact that Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson's home base for Hammock Hill is Nashville—a long way from Iceland. (As an interesting side-note, the band was asked in fall of 2007 by Birgisson and Alex Somers to perform at the debut of their Jonsi & Alex art collaboration, Riceboy Sleeps). Having dealt with the obvious, we can focus on how excellent the 110-minute Departure Songs is on its own terms.
The project's entire tone is soundly established by the opener, “Cold Front,” a towering exercise in atmospheric slow-burn and soaring guitar textures. Here and elsewhere, the guitars swell to a gloriously reverberant pitch with, in this case, wordless vocals adding to the music's euphoric character and Matt Slocum's cello playing enhancing its emotive power. The music often exudes a beautiful sadness, alternating as it does in a representative setting such as “Ten Thousand Years Won't Save Your Life” between glorious episodes of church-like melancholy and ecstatic joy. An elegiac guitar theme chimes resplendently throughout “Together Alone” as thick washes grow to massive size around it. Not that Hammock Hill's music necessarily needs it, but horns, strings, organ, and piano add extra layers of density to certain pieces. The intensity doesn't let up on the second disc either, as its grandiose opener “Dark Circles” and gorgeous dreamscape “All is Dream and Everything is Real” make clear. Departure Songs is not always pitched at the highest level. A track like “Pathos,” for example, offers a soothing respite from the intensity and affords a great opportunity to hear the group's strings-heavy side, while disc one's closer, “Frailty (For the Dearly Departed),” is appropriately mournful in tone.
Byrd steps up to the mic for falsetto-tinged vocals on the lustrous anthems “Tonight We Burn Like Stars That Never Die,” “Words You Said... I'll Never Forget You Now,” and “Hiding But Nobody Missed You,” while Christine Glass Byrd also graces a number of pieces with her angelic vocal presence. That Keith Kenniff (aka Helios and Goldmund) appears on one piece, “Artificial Paradises,” is telling, implying as it does how much the two artists share a love for emotive instrumental writing and luscious sound design. He makes considerably more than a minor contribution to the song, too, as he's credited with drums, piano, keyboards, percussion, and textures. Departure Songs ultimately registers as perhaps the greatest recording n5MD never released, with the double-disc set offering a near-perfect realization of the label's “emotional experiments in music” credo. If there's a challenge now facing Hammock Hill, it's how to follow up such a defining statement: what does one do for an encore when a performance so completely captures the group and its music? No matter: for now, the listener is encouraged to simply play the music loud and bask in the music's splendour.