Album Review: Living Hour — Living Hour (Feb 2016)

The debut by Winnipeg indie group Living Hour emerged onto the scene, rather unassuming, back in February despite its density and masterful production which have the markings of a well-established group.

The self-titled LP starts by dropping you right into the thick of it with lead track, “Summer Smog;” the drums and lush guitars repetitiously carry you along (and in their loop, bring you right back to the start) giving a sense of anxiety caused by the juxtaposition of the pace of the track with its overwhelming sense of immobility. At first, you’re not quite sure where you’re speeding off to and then suddenly, lead vocalist Sam Sarty’s trombone enters the scene as if to provide some grounding to the overall disorientation (a noteworthy dimension to the groups sound that continues to pay off with its peppered usage throughout the album).

As we begin to find our footing, Sarty’s smoky crooning voice pierces through the air exclaiming, “I can’t breathe in through this summer smog; I won’t breathe in until you come along.” The entire track is built on multiple layered loops which ramp up, intersect, and crash down like waves pushing you back onto the shore each time you try to swim out. If you’ve ever been The Lover — i.e. the one who always waits on the other (to call, to text, to show up) — then you’ve likely found yourself navigating through this romantic smog which Living Hour captures so beautifully in this track and beyond.

The hazy malaise of a love yet to blossom carries on throughout the entirety of the album and some of the most beautiful moments occur either when everything slows down and gets more intimate or when everything becomes chaotic and reaches peak ferocity. Living Hour navigates these spaces (and everything in between) with near perfect execution which allows the guitar harmonies to guide the listener through the turbulent waves rather effortlessly — each track almost prophetically leads into the next.

For some, an album of eight tracks (each pushing five minutes or longer in length) which bleed so easily into one another can come across as tired or too monotonous and admittedly this appears to be the case at first glance. However, this album is less about allowing you to casually listen to it — while you workout, study, endlessly scroll through social media, go about your day, etc. — and more about fully enmeshing you into the fold of its dense, verdant landscape.

One of the most emotionally charged tracks comes from the six-minute fuzziness of “This is the Place,” — starting with roaring drums and reverb-guitar creating a steady yet eerie atmosphere, the lead guitar then enters and drops us into a more psychedelic fluidity to explore the depths of our loneliness. Again, Sarty’s vocals fly into the ether and cut deep when she croons, “your silence is a deep and dark roar.” While her voice is often soothing with the ease of its airiness, it also has the incredible ability to give expression to some of the darkest emotions we feel when we’re being ignored and are left alone.

Many have remarked about similarities between Sarty’s voice and that of Victoria Legrand of Beach House, which is likely an appropriate point of reference in this sense, but the similarities between the two acts really stop there. While Beach House is solidly within the dream pop genre, Living Hour’s debut (and especially their live performances) give nods to the genre rather unintentionally. The use of varying guitar harmonies, keys, reverb, and the occasional presence of the trombone make for a more ambiguous — and ambitious — project.

“There is No Substance Between” is perhaps one of the more prominent tracks on the record which brings out the distinct character of Living Hour, casting aside all notions that they might be resting too hard on all the influences of what came before them.

The intro (and subsequent outro) has a surf-rock vibe that makes you think you’re in for something light and fun while driving to the beach but then, in an instant, switches back to the melancholic guitar lingerings which serve as the major backdrop of each track. The vocal harmonies between Sarty & co. then emerge — meeting in sync but also floating around each other with separate reverberations while the band crescendos and falls back down to subtley before ultimately reaching the final climax. The effect could have easily been botched and we would have been left with a chaotic mashing of incomphrensible layers but instead (due in no small part to the drums and bass) it proves to be one of the most sincere moments from the group — showcasing both the strength of each member individually and the collective power of the group as a whole.

While not exactly pushing the genres (shoegaze, psych rock, dream pop) into any radically new territories, there is something to be said here for the confidence within the group, and in the production of this record, to carve out a unique place for themselves while giving plenty of room to play, grow, and thrive in the future. At a time when the expectancy for everything to be “groundbreaking” and “new” is at its zenith, there are many artists doing so much to that end that they are not only losing coherency across a single album but they also lose a bit of their own authenticity in the process.

Living Hour is refreshing perhaps not because they are pushing the envelop in too many experimental ways, but precisely because they are (already) mature enough to know who they are. This self-titled debut has a strong and polished conceptual soundscape, start to finish, and that’s truly remarkable for a group taking its first steps.

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Other notable tracks on the album include: “Miss Emerald Green,” and “Feel Shy.”