While Hammock is one of the most recognizable names in ambient music, the duo once teetered on the edge of post-rock. Those who miss the sound of Kenotic will find a pleasant reminder in the four tracks mastered by Peter Katis (Jonsi), all of which include drums by Ken Lewis. But in recent years, the duo has drifted more to the side of modern composition, with tender, soaring strings. Those who prefer this sound will be drawn to the five tracks mastered by Francesco Donadello (A Winged Victory for the Sullen). There’s something for everyone here, old fans and new. But no matter what the timbre, the overall impression is the same: this is beautiful, emotive music, just as we’ve come to expect and adore from Hammock. Matt Kidd (Slow Meadow) even makes an appearance on piano.
The title Universalis conducts a feeling of connectivity, while the cover photo connotes an altar, a striving, an ascendent beam. Despite the tribal separations of the world, there are some universal truths, which begin with the shared experience of emotion. The band writes, “While Mysterium took listeners down a horizontal path that explored themes of death and grief, Universalis begins a vertical, upward movement back toward the light.” Mysterium was sad yet meaningful, a musical expression of loss. Universalis isn’t what one might call happy, but it reaches for transcendence and is able to brush its lower clouds. Vocals are absent, allowing listeners to sink into couches of contemplation. This is the sound of people going on.
The styles alternate in complementary fashion. The LP begins with a pair of memorable pieces, the gently recessive “Mouth to Dust… Waiting” and the shoegaze shimmer of “Scattering Light.” These tracks operate as a double overture, introducing the intertwining narrative of old and new, like the items worn by a bride. But when strings surge at the end of “Scattering Light,” one realizes that the wall between past and present is as porous as memory. The dead remain with us; we honor them by bringing them into the now. “Tether of Yearning” cradles the sound of birds at the morning shore, a reminder of resurrection.
At only 2:46, “Clothed in Sky” is a succinct summary of all that is Hammock. Rising slowly from Kidd’s piano are tendrils of string, chime and voice. The listener is transported skyward along with the notes. From here it’s a gentle landing, as “We Watched You Disappear” descends into piano, fluffing a pillow for the soft, sedimentary closer. As the second part of a trilogy, Universalis turns the head upward to gaze at the stars. In the third part, we may discover what waits at the other end of that light beam. (Richard Allen)