In 2006, Hotel Hotel recorded their first full-length, allheroesareforeverbold. They then went on tour and got signed to drone/post-rock label par excellence Silber Records. However, shortly after arriving home from their tour, the band’s drummer disappeared at LaGuardia Airport (and has not been seen since). The band went into a tailspin and spent the next year trying to figure out where to go, when some guidance came from the strangest place.
As the story goes, the remaining members were holed up in a bar one night when a real, live, honest-to-God sea captain tried to convince them to join his quest to find the “Mary Celeste,” the ghost ship that was presumably found in 2001. The band declined the offer, but the encounter planted the seeds for what would eventually become The Sad Sea.
Like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, A Silver Mt. Zion, and Set Fire to Flames, the eight songs on The Sad Sea are more dirge than anything, mournful ballads full of weeping strings, glacial guitars, and spectral static and feedback. And while Hotel Hotel do occasionally indulge in explosive climaxes like those of their fellow Texans in Explosions in the Sky — e.g., “The Dirac Sea (High Tide),” “The Captain Goes Down With The Ship ( Drowning)” — the band is really at their best when they eschew or at least minimize the percussion. Here, in the album’s softer and subtler moments, the band reveals a beauty in their music, beauty that is nevertheless fraught with unease and disquiet.
“From Harbour” unfolds at a funereal pace, a lament for the sailors lost — and soon to be lost — amidst the waves. The drums are present here, but they serve mainly to hem in the swaying violins and guitar rumblings, thus keeping the song moving forward in its inexorable pace. There’s a powerful sense of nostalgia and loss wafting through the song that brings to mind decaying mementos found in abandoned lighthouses or hulking wrecks washing up on foreign shores, and it powerfully sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The drums are entirely absent from “Mary Celeste,” however, and so the drones are left to spill over and run amok. The listener is enveloped in a thick, impenetrable fog that hides — but doesn’t silence — all manner of spirits and specters beckoning you to join them in their watery realms. And as might be discerned by its title, “The Shoreline Disappeared” is just one long goodbye, a lovely melancholy ode of spiraling pianos and violins that serves as the album’s emotional core. As the track progresses, it grows more ephemeral and intangible, like a brigantine disappearing over the horizon, until all that’s left is one final wisp of violin that scatters on a cold sea wind.
I’ll confess that I initially wrote off Hotel Hotel as a band too indebted to the the likes of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and those other aforementioned acts. The mournful, orchestral tone just seemed too familiar, too similar in light of previous orchestral post-rock albums. Despite those albums having been released a number of years ago, there’s no denying that The Sad Sea’s tonal palette exists at least partially within their shadow. However, leaving things at that ignores the sad, eerie, and at times, very heartfelt beauty that does loom and lurk throughout the album.
Not quite a concept album, The Sad Sea is nevertheless an evocative recording for doomed voyages through uncharted, treacherous — and heartbreakingly beautiful — waters.