Full disclosure: Hour of the Shipwreck is not really a metal band. Full disclosure part two: I used to play pump organ and sing for them. There was a time when I was bent out of shape about getting kicked out of HOTS for not being able to hang, musically-speaking. A couple years down the line, I'm infinitely grateful that I was sacked, because now I have the luxury of listening to music that inspires me every time I hear it -- nay, every time I think about it -- without worrying about flubbing a chord. We all have friends whose bands we support just because we want to support our friends. That's not the case for me with Hour of the Shipwreck. I respect what the band is doing far too much to consider it mere "friend rock," and I consider myself privileged to count the members of this band as acquaintances.
Though The Hour Is Upon Us was created by 30-odd musicians, it manifests the ambitions of a single man, HOTS's songwriter/vocalist/guitarist, Richie Kohan. His is a grand vision, mapping well with Tolkien, Jackson, Disney, Miyazaki (all four are cited in the liner notes). That means lengthy songs whose dynamics are sculpted like a film director shapes a scene -- we can almost hear the camera pan through the clouds on opener "The Chandelier Suite" -- plus dozens upon dozens of studio tracks dense with acoustic and electric guitars, multi-tracked vocals, cello, autoharp, French horn and keyboards. Elements of Canterbury prog, post-rock and, yes, fantastical movie scores course through HOTS's tautly-constructed songs. Try not to define the genre and you will appreciate its flexible contours all the more. There's really no name for what the band's doing here.
Sudden explosive rock crescendos abound. A supersonic guitar-tapping solo worthy of Eddie Van Halen sweetens the end of album highlight "Save the World." There is a full fucking choir (full disclosure the third: I was in it) deployed in a bunch of tracks. The outsized musical gestures click here, partly because Hour of the Shipwreck's music is so immersive that it's a delight to be taken in, partly because the album is so meticulously assembled that it works as a musical set piece for lifelong fantasies, HOTS's and yours. It's also easy to embrace the album's grandiosity because there's an honest vulnerability underneath all of the bigness, expressed in Kohan's delicate vocal imprecations and elaborated in melodies that are kissed with chromaticism and haunting dissonances.
Cobwebby guitar lines take the place of riffs on "My Fantasy" and the beginning of "Mt. Davidson," contrasting with drummer Barbara Gruska's steady-as-she-goes propulsion for a wafting sense of momentum unique to Hour of the Shipwreck. The latter also contains an awesome dual-guitar slashathon that turns into jet-engine radio rock for a minute, before dissolving into a whoosh of drumless ghosties. From floating rhythmic beds to thumping mechano-groove to the absence of rhythm altogether -- to borrow a phrase, Hour of the Shipwreck moves in mysterious ways.
Befitting a band with more than just surface prettiness to offer, Hour of the Shipwreck end The Hour Is Upon Us with its "heaviest" track, the epic-in-all-ways "Unclouded Eyes." Cheeseworthy as it sounds, I'm totally charmed by the call to battle that starts it off like the Riders of Rohan galloping to war. And while the doom coda at the end doesn't crush with quite the finality it achieves in HOTS's live show, that air-sucking guitar distortion does leave the ears abuzz and the heart apalpitating. The band's loftiness comes crashing down in blunt, physical form. Stonehenge crumbles. Fade to black. Beautiful.