Though it happens very rarely, there are certain times when a piece of music is able to transcend a mere listening experience by it sheer beauty. During those times, the music inspires the soul, alludes to dreams, and speaks directly to one’s heart in a language that is fluent only to that heart. When this occurs, the result is an indescribable affirmation of one’s spirit…a feeling that one is relatable…that there are others who understand that person, and who are able to somehow convey that person’s innermost longings into sound. For this reviewer, this existential listening experience occurs with precious few CD’s, such as The Prayer Chain’s Mercury, The Melody Unit’s Choose Your Own Adventure, parts of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and The Inbetween Time by Common Children. On these CD’s, my soul embraces the music, and I can’t help but be amazed at how these releases capture the essence of my being.
It’s a rare thing to feel these emotions about a CD, so when it happens, I overflow with enthusiasm. Hammock’s full-length CD release of atmospheric music, entitled Kenotic, is one of “those” releases for me. Somehow, the duo of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson are able to convey otherworldly feelings through their use of gentle guitar melodies, delay, sparse vocals, and patient song-craft. That these musicians would touch me so strongly is no surprise, given that they comprised of ½ of the musical force that created The Inbetween Time, a collection of songs coated in a spacey vibe. In fact, Kenotic at times sounds like the logical extension of the musical ideas found in The Inbetween Time, only that the drones and atmosphere are now allowed more liberty to open up and overtake the listener. Yet, while Hammock breathes freedom into their affected guitars, keyboards, cellos, whispered spoken word and field recordings, the duo has not abandoned the sharp songwriting that has marked their pre-Hammock careers (Byrd and Thompson, in addition to their stellar work with Common Children, have been involved on a variety of musical projects, such as GlassByrd and the City on a Hill series). Instead, on each of the 16 tracks on Kenotic, Hammock pierces their atmospheric sound with beautiful and haunting melodies that are instantly memorable.
Kenotic uses expansive guitars to play the bulk of their melodies, but the band also incorporates other sounds into their music, such as pristine vocals from Christine Glass-Byrd, as well as the occasional vocal from Byrd himself. Sixpence None the Richer’s Matt Slocum plays the cello on songs like “Blankets of Night”, while The Choir’s Steve Hindalong contributes his signature percussion to a few tracks. But, the main attraction on Kenotic are the guitars, as evidenced on the thick drones of “Dawn Begins to Creep”, and the aptly titled “Glacial”. Kenotic is not a one-trick pony when it comes to guitar work, though, as the band mixes their use of droning sounds with more conventional playing: lead guitars play the melody of songs like “Kenotic” and “The Air Between Us”. Hammock’s use of guitars on these tracks remind me of the playing of Monk. Other times, the drones and lead guitar parts are blended together to create fluid moments of musicality, such as on “Stars in the Rearview Mirror” and “Blankets of Night”. On “Wish” and the dramatic “What Heaven Allows”, light electronics are added to the mix, propelling the music forward with an undeniable momentum. “What Heaven Allows” is also notable to Byrd’s passionate vocals buried deep in the mix yet still resonating with longing and emotion.
In the end, to assess Kenotic with a track by track analysis of would be unfair, because while each track is unique, self-contained, and noteworthy (none of the 16 tracks are weak!), the overall impact of the entire collection is overwhelming. On Kenotic, Hammock slows down time, allowing the listener space to breathe, consider, and meditate. The guitar melodies echo over and over in the listener’s ears long after the CD is done playing, bathing the listener in a rare afterglow of musical satisfaction. Simply stated, Kenotic is a triumph of sonic vision that deeply resonates with me. It is the perfect soundtrack to snow falling, night driving, stargazing, praying, Aurora Borealis shows, and soul-searching. It’s hard for this reviewer to imagine someone listening to Kenotic and not being moved the same way I have been inspired by these songs. But, even if such a stone-hearted listener exists whose heart is untouched by Hammock, they will agree with me that, at the very least, Kenotic is one beautiful-sounding CD.
For fans of Windy and Carl, Stars of the Lid , Common Children, and atmospheric music in general.