Beautiful, Beautiful Noise
Bliss Out with Iona, Unwed Sailor and Hammock

2006 is winding down. I’m Christmas shopping already, and I’ve just made my last major purchase of the year, musically speaking – the three-CD Tom Waits set Orphans. (I have listened to half of it, and I would call it extraordinary so far, if this level of quality weren’t Waits’ normal standard.) I am pretty sure about my top 10 list now, barring another major surprise (wait until you see what made number one), and I’ve mapped out the last six columns of the year.

This is always a weird time for me – the assessment period, when I try to put a few adjectives and a nice little bow on the year. I think 2006 was about stability for me, about setting the boundaries of my world, and going about the business of filling it up. It was a relatively peaceful year, all told, with no earth-shattering changes, just little ripples. Although there’s still a month left, so anything could happen…

But what better way to wind down a peaceful year than with peaceful music? Considering my addiction to melody, many find it surprising that I’m also a fan of ambient and shoegazer music, the kind based in drones and soundscapes. It’s an odd side pocket of my obsession, I admit, but in some ways, it’s my favorite kind of music. Nothing else transports me so completely. There’s something vaguely spiritual about it, and although I know intellectually that the magic is performed with technology – the tweaking of effects boxes, the permutation of sine waves – it still sounds like magic. More to the point, with most ambient music, I don’t want to know how it’s done.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Music From the Hearts of Space on you this time, but I do have four records from three bands that live on the soundscape side of town, three bands that are essentially unknown outside their own circles. And I think that’s a shame, because all three produce some beautiful work.

Iona is perhaps the best-known of the bunch – their unique mix of Enya and Rush has, over the 16 years of their existence, drawn the attention and respect of the progressive community. Still, they’re not really a part of that scene, just as they’re not really a part of the Christian music industry, even though their old-world spirituality has earned them a home there, too. Iona is one of a kind, a Celtic-ambient-prog-pop band beholden to no trends or fashions. They were mixing Uilleann pipes and synthesizers for nearly a decade before James Horner thought of it, and they’ve always been what they are now.

In some ways, that’s the problem with The Circling Hour, their sixth full-lengther. All the hallmarks of Iona’s sound are here – Celtic instruments mixed with soaring guitars and sweet synth beds, Frank Van Essen’s thunderous drums, Joanne Hogg’s breathtaking voice, a couple of very long songs and a multi-part epic, and a spiritual concept. It is, without a doubt, an Iona record, and my major complaint with it is that it doesn’t break any new ground for the group. It doesn’t even hone the sound presented on 2000’s Open Sky, it just presents it again.

Any disappointment you may have with their creative repetition, however, should be allayed by the quality of the record. It’s an Iona album, but it’s a very good one, and as long as no one else sounds like this, they might as well own the style. Opener “Empyrean Dawn” begins with nothing but Hogg’s voice, but very soon explodes with guitars and keyboards, finally settling into a stately groove. The songs on Circling Hour are a bit more propulsive than those in the past – there is no sunset-lit ballad here this time, only moments of bliss before the drums kick back in.

Like always, guitarist Dave Bainbridge and pipes player Troy Donockley get plenty of space to trade leads, and in the album’s centerpiece, the 11-minute “Wind off the Lake,” they duel and duet restlessly, each pushing the other. That song contains pockets of ambience and long stretches of jig-like playing, and is the most sterling example here of their modern Celtic sound.

The other epic, “Wind, Water & Fire,” spreads its 14 minutes over three tracks. The first, “Wind,” is the most placid thing here, rising slowly, until Hogg enters at the start of “Water,” imitating lapping waves with her wordless vocals. “Fire” finds the band at full force, and while it would be silly to think of this as heavy music, the instrumental prowess exhibited here does carry substantial weight. The album ends with “Fragment of a Fiery Sun,” a brief reprise of “Empyrean Dawn” that brings The Circling Hour, well, full circle.

There’s nothing here that should surprise longtime fans, and those who’ve never sampled Iona before can start here with no fear. If you like this, you’ll like everything they’ve done before, and conversely, if you like anything they’ve done before, you’ll like this. I can whine all I want to about stylistic variation, but when a band has developed something this interesting and this unique, it seems petty. Iona is Iona, and probably always will be, and The Circling Hour is just another reason to like them.

If you want a band that sounds different album to album, you could do worse than Unwed Sailor, an instrumental collective from Seattle based around former Roadhouse Monument bassist Jonathon Ford. They haven’t been particularly prolific, but the Sailor boys seem to undergo a massive change each time out – the electric webs of The Faithful Anchor were no preparation for the haunting storybook sounds of The Marionette and the Music Box, for example.

This year, Unwed Sailor took another turn into more ambient territory with their third album, The White Ox. The signs were there on the Circles EP, released in May as a teaser for the full-length. Circles is one 16-minute song divided into two parts, and is the most droning, repetitive thing the band has ever done. The first part is an 11-minute crescendo looped around a simple, repeating bass figure, and while the second kicks things up a little, it ends just as it’s getting more interesting. It’s still oddly captivating, but in a much more subdued way than their other work.

The White Ox follows suit. This is an album to listen to in total darkness, with the volume on 11. It’s a moody, subtle effort, built on repetition and atmosphere. Opener “Shadows” is essentially three or four little pieces stitched together by synth washes, with a massive sound and some thunderclap percussion. “Gila” crawls along like the titular lizard, with a slinky bass line and some electronic distortion keeping the beat. It’s also the only song here with lyrics, a definite surprise – the last time we heard Ford’s voice was on the closing track of The Faithful Anchor. His low tone works well with this menacing number.

Most of this album happens beneath the surface, and the changes are so subtle and small that it’s easy to miss them if you’re not listening intently. “Numbers,” for example, is just as much a math-rock piece as anything on the band’s first couple of records, but this one’s performed on acoustic guitars, synth sounds and wordless vocals. Ford spends the final moments of that song counting out loud to 10, kind of a reverse countdown for “Night Diamond,” one of the most subdued tracks. The chiming guitars add a layer of shimmering beauty to this piece, and the piano melody is sweet.

While this music just floats by on first listen, keep digging and it becomes clear that Ford has made a little masterpiece here. My main disappointment is with the length – Ox is 33 minutes, and Circles is 16. Together they’d have made a normal-sized album, but no, we have to pay for them separately, even though the cover art and design makes it clear that they’re parts of a whole.

But that’s a minor quibble. There’s apparently a second Unwed Sailor full-length called Little Wars that’s in the can, and I hope it’s as consistent and lovely as The White Ox. It’s like nothing Ford has done before, and fans of the more energetic Sailor material may find it too simple, but for me, The White Ox is a lovely little record, and a happy addition to my collection of spaced-out mood music.

Of course, no one in this field can hold a candle to Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson, the mainstays of Hammock. Byrd and Thompson were members of Common Children, and Byrd has recently joined my favorite band on the planet, the Choir. But nothing in their prior catalogs could have prepared the way for Kenotic, Hammock’s magnificent 2005 debut.

Byrd and Thompson don’t play music as much as they sculpt it from the air. Every sound on Kenotic feels like it’s made up of elements from beyond the atmosphere, and describing Byrd’s reverb-soaked guitar playing as otherworldly almost seems like an understatement. This is definitely one of those cases where knowing how it’s done – arrays of pedals and stacks of electronic effects processors – really detracts from the experience, because Hammock music sounds mystical.

Hammock’s second full-length is called Raising Your Voice… Trying to Stop an Echo, and with it, they’ve landed a dream of a dream-pop record deal: they’re on Darla, home of Cockteau Twin Robin Guthrie. That name means nothing to many of you, but some of you are undoubtedly whipping out your credit cards already, because Guthrie’s name has been associated with some of the most glorious ambient pop music ever made.

The match-up is a fitting one. Raising Your Voice is 76 more minutes of Byrd and Thompson’s astonishing float music, performed with some of the most alien and transporting guitar tones you’ll ever hear. (For you Choir fans, imagine an entire album of the spacey bits of Circle Slide. Yeah, it’s that good. Better, even.) They’ve added lyrics to three songs here, sung by Byrd and his wife Christine Glass, but don’t worry, they work brilliantly, especially the awesome “Shipwrecked (Flat on Your Back).”

Elsewhere, little has changed. The duo still creates cascading waterfalls of sound, with occasional help from Glass on wordless vocals and Matt Slocum (Sixpence None the Richer) on cello. Subtle beats weave in and out of these 18 songs, but the focus is on the deep emotional undercurrent of this music. That’s right, it’s emotional music, even without lyrics or indelible melodies, which is a feat in itself. A piece like “Losing You to You” dares you to remain unmoved as oceans of emotion crash over you. This is passionate music, and hidden in its corners are surprisingly powerful moments.

The one thing Hammock needs to work on is crafting album-length journeys instead of collections of smaller trips. These 18 tracks ebb and flow, but they don’t connect as well as they could, and the final track, “Sparkle and Fade,” is more like an interlude, one that’s over before you know it. It’s a small complaint, but sequencing can often be the difference between good records and great ones.

Raising Your Voice is a marvelous follow-up regardless, and hopefully a sign that Byrd and Thompson plan to keep making this glorious music for years to come. They’re getting some well-deserved respect for it, and hopefully some well-deserved sales. It’s obvious, with every beautiful note, that this is the music Byrd and Thompson have wanted to make all their lives, and I hope they get to keep on making it, because at times, this is the music I’ve wanted to listen to all my life, and I want more of it.

Links. Clicky. Iona. Unwed Sailor. Hammock.

Next week, catching up with some minor-league releases. Then, Christmas music and (hopefully) Frank Zappa before we plunge into the year-end extravaganzas.

See you in line Tuesday morning.