Album Review: Hilary Woods – Feral Hymns EP

[Sacred Bones; 2021]

The work of Irish composer and multimedia artist Hilary Woods seems never all that concerned with becoming a finished product. Her acclaimed breakthrough Colt treated pop like an apparition of vapors: shapeless, in flux, disembodied. Birthmarks, the follow-up she co-produced with Norwegian noise-smith Lasse Marhaug, translated her music to more corporeal textures. Both albums mark an intriguing second chapter in Woods’ career, who once played bass in defunct indie-pop trio JJ72. That last footnote feels rather asinine to mention, however, since it couldn’t be further from the sonic pastures Woods is exploring now.

Listening to her new EP Feral Hymns, it’s as if Woods is peeling off yet another layer of her artistic process. Once again working with Marhaug, these five ambient tracks – marked in Roman numerals – sound like the duo melting down the guttural sounds and textures of Birthmarks into a primordial ooze from which to forge something new. True to its name, Feral Hymns is shapeless, wordless, and focused on delineating the subconscious. 

Field recordings of whispering murmurs and clattering rain are mixed at the forefront instead of serving as mood signifiers in the background. Woods summons up fabrics of low register string drones, haunting vocal abstractions and effects, which give the impression of a haunting fever dream. For some reason, I had to think about that feeling of being in an airplane for several hours; the roar of the jet engine, the air pressure, and bursts through the cutting air outside create this impulse-deadening vacuum.

For Birthmarks, Woods – who is also a talented visual artist and photographer – superimposed a lot of carnal imagery into intrusive abstractions, but for Feral Hymns, she opted to use a photograph of a kid on the streets that exudes the grace of a historical artifact, as if could be from the 40s or 50s. But if you look closer, especially at the shoes, it’s likely a more contemporary image. This juxtaposition of sound and image embodies one of the things Woods does so well sonically: to use bleeding-edge means to create something that feels foregone, distant, and ancient. 

The music of Feral Hymns strikes very much like the sound of retreat, but very urgently and physically. Some artists wipe their slate completely clean project after project and go back to the drawing board. But with Woods, her music sounds more like a constantly retracting, and relaxing muscle, like a lung maybe that slowly breathes in and out. Up till now, we’ve gotten records from her that very much reflect that outward gust, something that’s being expressed. For the first time, Feral Hymns captures her music engulfing inwardly again, holding its breath in tranquil contemplation of where to go next. At the end of another bizarre year, it is something that hits rather close to home, no matter where in the world you might live.