There’s not much to see when you’re traveling through the Midwest, specifically Nebraska and Iowa. Unlike the coasts, there’s no possibility of expansive ocean views off to the side. (The Platte river’s hardly a substitute.) And unlike, say, Colorado or one of the Appalachian states, there are no mountain vistas to fill your eyes. At most, you get some foothills or a few bluffs. No, driving through the Midwest is a rather unexciting and somewhat arduous affair — something I was reminded of once again when Renae and I traveled to the most recent L’Abri conference in Rochester, Minnesota.
This becomes even moreso during the winter, especially the farther north you go. At least during the other seasons, there’s something to look at in the fields or unending waves of gently rolling hills that line I-80 — some splash of color that might catch the eye and relieve at least some of the tedium. But during the winter months, there’s nothing in those stretches between interstate exits, stretches that seem to expand the longer you’ve been driving.
The fields of corn and wheat have been replaced by an endless blanket of white and grey, of snow and sludge, with only rocks and pale tufts of prairie grass poking through here and there. Occasionally a naked tree, white farmhouse, or barn ruins will stand out against the cloudless, slate-grey sky, its minuscule outline cutting a distinctive shape against the blank nothingness that looms behind and threatens to swallow it up.
And yet, for all of their apparent monotony, there’s something incredibly comforting about these long drives through wide-open and otherwise nondescript landscapes. I find that as I drive even the relatively short distance between Lincoln and Omaha, a certain zen-like state can descend upon me. At the risk of sounding like a danger to my fellow drivers, I often find that I’m lost in these geographical gaps, absorbed (in a sense) by these huge expanses that are hemmed in only by the horizon.
And for all of their hugeness, there’s an intimacy as well. Mountain vistas are impressive to be sure, but also feel claustrophobic. Oceans can fill me with awe and lull me with their rhythms, but they’re often completely incomprehensible and alien. Having been born and raised in Nebraska, however, this is my landscape. Having come from a family of farmers, from people whose very existence was inextricably tied to the land and the soil, it’s a part of me, ingrained upon my self-consciousness, even my very soul.
Simply put, I’m at home in these spaces. There’s something comforting about them, something equally lulling about them.
And as is usually the case, I’m listening to music while driving through this landscape. And more often than not, I find that Hood’s The Cycle of Days and Seasons is a perfect soundtrack for these long trips through a land whose monotony is shot through with nostalgia, familiarity, longing, and memory.
Formed in Leeds, England in the early ’90s by Chris and Richard Adams, Hood has since released a slew of albums, EPs, and singles on a variety of labels (Slumberland, Happy Go Lucky, Fluff, 555, Domino). Working with a revolving roster of collaborators, including members of The Third Eye Foundation, Empress, and The Remote Viewer, the Adams’ output has ranged in sound from damaged noise-pop influenced by Sonic Youth and the shoegazers to electronica clearly fascinated by Warp Records and the Anticon crew’s glitch-hop.
However, Hood’s most affecting music comes when they slow down and strike up a more ambient, pastoral sound informed by the seminal post-rock of Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis. The band began moving in this direction on 1997’s aptly-titled Rustic Houses, Forlorn Valleys. There were still the occasional outbursts and fiery climaxes, but on the whole, the release found the band moving towards a slower, methodical sound. A sound that reached its culmination on The Cycle of Days and Seasons.
The Cycle of Days and Seasons was actually the first Hood release I ever heard. I bought it in 2000 after reading posts on a e-mail list that compared it to Bark Psychosis’ Hex and Slowdive’s Pygmalion, two of my favorite albums. Initially, I had mixed opinions of the album, something that’s very obvious in my original review. But over the years, the album has grown on me; like all great art, it has somehow figured out a way to lodge itself within my subconscious and become a part of my existence. And so it is that long drives through midwestern nowheres have become forever linked to The Cycle of Days and Seasons, and vice versa.
It’s increasingly difficult to call the individual tracks that make up The Cycle of Days and Seasons “songs” per se. They feel less like compositions and more like sketches of a sad British countryside created with the aid of a barely-there arrangement of instruments: layers of lethargic, effects-laden guitars; sparse, riverine piano melodies; sighing clarinets, oboes, and horns; and brushed, dub-laced percussion that seems less interested in driving the songs forward than making sure the other instruments don’t drift too far afield.
But as haunting as the music created with these instruments may be, the more I listen to The Cycle of Days and Seasons the more I see that the album’s true effect comes from what lies between the spaces occupied by the instruments. It’s an album full of space that’s replete with seemingly incidental, non-musical sounds: field recordings, cut-up snippets of conversations, washes of static, distantly tolling church bells, and so on.
The odd result is that a good deal of the album doesn’t feel “present” when you listen to it. A good portion of it feels like it’s somewhere “out there” and merely drifting over from some distant, half-forgotten place and time. The snippets of conversation are largely indistinct; only short phrases concerning the passing of seasons are comprehensible. There’s a constant sense that you’re not quite getting the whole picture — that something, some key detail is not quite there. But rather than prove frustrating, they pull you in and “speak” to all of the key parts of themselves that aren’t there yet, of broken memories and missed out conversations.
Then there’s the sound of the landscape. In interviews, Hood’s members have often discussed the effect of the British countryside on their music. That effect manifests itself most obviously in the band’s artwork: nearly all of their releases feature photos of the British landscape in its most forlorn and autumnal forms. But it’s also there in the evocative sounds.
It’s difficult to hear those church bells and not imagine some disused, ivy-covered tower sounding out to the few remaining faithful on a dreary November afternoon. Meanwhile, the CD’s lethargic pace speaks of long weekend walks through fields, coats zipped up and scarves wrapped tightly to fend off the chill as the sky begins to drizzle. There’s a sense of meandering, of becoming swallowed up by the very countryside you’re trying to traverse. A feeling that I experience all too often as I travel through these midwestern spaces.