Arriving just a year after Chromatisms, it’s remarkable that Seattle’s The Soft Hills have been able to complete Departure at all. This last year has been turbulent to say the least: with band members disappearing left right and centre, main man and album producer Garrett Hobba suffered not only from the band’s demise but also from respiratory troubles and a resulting breakdown.
The band’s soft psych-rock sound is still intact, but this time around Hobba has found himself influenced by artists such as Joy Division, in particular by their minimalism and production techniques. The result is, according to Hobba, very different from previous efforts, with the recording of the drumming being a particular example as contributing sticksmith Jacob Evans – who brings a jazz-trained touch to proceedings – played the recording sessions within a converted chapel. There is also far less of the overall Americana feel when compared to previous LPs.
With the demise of the band as it was known, Hobba called upon a number of friends to flesh out the recordings. He has previously claimed that listening to The Soft Hills is like “wandering through a magical landscape where horse-like creatures run wild across velveteen fields and mythological birds soar under melancholy clouds”. In plain English that means you will need to be prepared for the occasional wishy-washy moment.
Album opener Golden Hour is a standout right from the off, somehow veering from an intro that sounds like Interpol limbering up, to middle and end sections that approach the dreaminess suggested by Hobba’s description. The floating sensation continues for the hauntingly serene Black Flowers, where vocals are entwined with shimmering guitars to form another dreamy moment.
Road To The Sun’s Beach Boys like vocal harmonies float amongst flute and clunky guitar strokes to create an ethereal experience that bears resemblance to Icelandic shoegazers Leaves’ Shakma (Drunken Starlit Sky) in places. The Fold recalls The Crimea’s Davey Macmanus vocally within a slow and sparse meandering path through a pallid ode before veering off in another direction, as pummelling drums, guitar and vocal layers appear. White Queen is another slow effort, tinged with occasional slide guitar to create a slight country touch, haunting, quivering keyboards adding to the oodles of atmosphere.
In stark contrast, How Can I Explain? begins with thumping drums that soon turn into pounding, with eerily soft screeches of guitar noise furnishing a stop/start cycle that builds back up for its conclusion of crashing cymbals, resonating guitar and vocal harmonies. Here It Comes represents more sparseness and minimalism to the point where it could easily fit on to a Low album if Mimi Parker’s vocals were added to the mix, whilst Blue Night opens to a persistent piano arpeggio before developing into one of the most delicately beautiful tracks on the collection.
Strumming guitar commences foot tapper Belly Of A Whale with electric piano and soft, sadly delivered vocals joining the fray. Stairs then closes the album after opening to another far heavier burst of drums, bass and shimmering guitars; the track twists and turns between angelically sung verses to squalling feedback guitars with an occasional injection of a doom-laden riff, the song disappearing suddenly after a burst of shoegaze.
There’s plenty of evidence that Hobba’s vocal harmony experimentation is in full flow throughout Departure, and this is the main attraction of the new album; the dreamy textures married with a deft shoegaze feel occasionally bewitch. For now, the achievement that Hobba has managed to release work of any quality after such a traumatic year should be celebrated, even if the album doesn’t always reach the ‘soaring above the clouds’ vibe intended.