The Nashville ambient band Hammock have had a strange and somewhat tragic year. In May, the first floor of co-founder Marc Byrd’s home was buried in rain water and debris, as the city endured an epic 100-year flood that wreaked havoc across Middle Tennessee. Then, on September 11th, a day that will forever be disquieting, the band was informed minutes before they took the stage in Hot Springs, AR that a man had been beaten to death not far from the club where they were to perform. Tragedy is a part of life, to be sure, but token phrases have yet to inoculate humans from the pain and confusion that tragedy can bring. Faced with misfortune, most of us bury our heads in the sand or medicate ourselves through dubious means. Conversely, Byrd, Andrew Thompson and regular collaborator Matt Slocum retreat to the studio, where for six years they’ve honed an otherworldly, cathartic sound they refer to as “Southern ambient.” It is among the South’s storied expanses that they find solace and redemption, a feeling that is easily telegraphed in their music.
Perhaps obvious at this point, the band titled their latest EP Longest Year because of the aforementioned trials they endured in 2010. And, though there are brief moments of wistfulness and melancholy found within its 32-minute run-time — thankfully, ambient artists are always bent on consumers getting their money’s worth — Longest Year transmits more hope and transcendence than any amount of darkness gleaned from the title. Like the Thomas Petillo photograph included with the release, the land (or, life, in the middle of tumult) may seem barren, but some choose to perceive this “death” as a new beginning. One gets the sense from these five songs that Byrd, Thompson and Slocum are of this mindset, men wise enough to discern what’s truly worth losing sleep over. Or, more importantly, what can be discerned about oneself or one’s impermanence in the midst of trouble.
Musically, Hammock is a band that trades in the slightest of nuances. To the impatient, this equates to each of their releases — there are nine total since 2004 — sounding roughly the same: Slow, dense, shadowy and possibly outright boring. Frankly, this music isn’t even meant for most modern, iPod-toting listeners (though, undoubtedly, they could be converted). Rather, as best heard on their most recent LP, Chasing After Shadows… Living With the Ghosts, Hammock (as the name infers) is a band worth taking in as a whole. Their work is experiential, crafted to soundtrack more than mere moments, but entire afternoons spent lost in thought or quaint appreciation for some surrounding beauty. Moreover, its impressionistic enough for you to find your own meaning within — album and song titles are the only words invoked to dictate feeling — but, it can’t be ignored that this music reflects its creators’ sober optimism about the world around them.
More specifically, Longest Year sits in between Chasing… and its predecessor, Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow, a minimalistic “live studio performance” album composed specifically for the overseas debut exhibition of Riceboy Sleeps, the art collaboration of Sigur Rós’ Jónsi Birgisson and Parachutes’ Alex Somers. Like Maybe…, Longest Year is beat-less, its rhythms largely conjured from Slocum’s string performances, though rhythm is a relative concept when discussing ambient music, of course. And, like Chasing…, the EP continues Hammock’s interest in creating moments of swollen immensity that reach massive heights without bowing to the now-tired “Explosions formula”: Loud-quiet-loud-quiet-louder.
The EP’s opening title track begins cloaked in a big, flickering shawl that opens up to a Richter-esque cello arrangement that tastefully counters the astral wash surrounding it. A few minutes later, another cello line, this time higher in the register, creeps in just before a dense ambient swell grows underneath. This tapestry stews with a slow, majestic cadence until a single guitar melody drenched in chorus finds its way atop what is now a wall of sound, making yet another solid case for simplicity over theatrics. Guitars, the primary mode of communication in Hammock, enter “Dark Beyond the Blue” in a decidedly more subdued, muted form. An abyss-appropriate bass pad stirs beneath, joining the heavily manipulated six-stringed loop on an odyssey of repetition that somehow refuses to become uninteresting. In this way, the song recalls The Caretaker’s “hauntological” masterpiece Persistent Repetition of Phrases.
At Longest Year‘s midsection, “Cruel Sparks” features the most liberal use of distortion Byrd and Thompson have ever invoked, its presence not only felt in the main, downward driving melody but in the intermittent noises that scurry alongside it. “Lonely, Some Quietly Wander in the Hall of Stars” shares in the former’s sense of yearning, but slowly begins to re-brighten things as guitars are leveraged to actually emulate the sound of stars careening across a night’s sky. It’s songs like this that make Hammock’s name so perfectly suited for the music it’s appended to.
Rounding out the collection is “One Another”, a composition that feels precisely like the Petillo photo: Stark but romantic, desolate but enduring. Insistent strings navigate untold numbers of washed out guitar tracks and synth pads, outlasting them all to close the EP in an organic and poignant swell. It is there that we’re left to decide for ourselves if this year, rife with conflict and unrest, portends our ruin or our reemergence.