Hour 2024
Photo: Greg Rutkin / Sipsman

Hour’s ‘Ease the Work’ Is Hypnotic and Beautifully Strange

The latest release from Michael Cormier-O’Leary’s instrumental collective, Hour, is a deliberately paced work that’s peaceful and oddly disarming.

Ease the Work
Dear Life
12 April 2024

Listening to Ease the Work, the thrilling, unique new album from Michael Cormier-O’Leary’s instrumental collective Hour, I was reminded of a particular scene in The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 conspiracy thriller. In the film, Warren Beatty plays Joe Frady, a reporter who investigates the mysterious Parallax Corporation, whose business is political assassinations. As Frady penetrates the organization, he enters their recruiting process, where he is shown a short film and is wired to measure his emotional reactions. The movie is essentially a slide show that initially shows wholesome images of patriotic American life (accompanied by pleasant, harmless instrumental music). However, very gradually, more sinister and frightening images are incorporated, and the music becomes more dissonant and unsettling. It’s more disturbing than many less subtle, more in-your-face horror movies.

The instrumental music that makes up Ease the Work often comes off that way – it’s relatively uncomplicated (although frequently beautiful and sumptuous). Still, it occasionally veers off the rails to the point where it seems ominous and occasionally maddening. There’s a naivete to the arrangements and the execution – it’s a bit off-kilter and rough around the edges, to the point where it could accurately be described as outsider music. What prevents it from coming off as a more organic form of Muzak – and, in effect, what makes it so revelatory and consistently listenable – is the unvarnished nature of the performances.  

In May 2023, Michael Cormier-O’Leary assembled a group of musicians (12, including himself, who’s credited as playing electric guitar, classical guitar, and percussion), and they boarded a ferry along with an entire studio’s worth of gear to an old off-Broadway theater on Peaks Island, Maine. After an initial hiccup – the whole island lost power on what was to be the first day of recording – eventually, the record was recorded in about a week. Building on the sound of the first two Hour albums (Tiny Houses and Anemone Red, both released in 2018), Ease the Work follows much of the same template but with a slightly broader sound, largely due to the addition of a few more instruments and musicians.

“Island Time” opens Ease the Work and beautifully introduces the concept, as a slow, deliberate melody is played with an emphasis on piano, acoustic guitar, and plaintive strings. It’s undeniably gorgeous, and the musicians are playing at a pace that almost hints that it’s a tentative rehearsal. The charm and warmth is palpable. That is followed by the title track, the first indication that things can (and will) get tense: the initially peaceful song concludes with a final minute of swirling, atonal, noisy chaos. The mournful “KC & Clem” also begins innocently enough before collapsing under the weight of its orchestral ambitions. Blocks of neoclassical chamber-pop dissonance make up a bulk of “Stoner”, which sounds like Scott Walker attempting a stately version of one of Captain Beefheart‘s thornier instrumentals.

There’s a DIY sensibility to this music, and a lot of it sounds very much cut from the same cloth as iconoclastic standard-bearers like Tortoise and Eiko Ishibashi. But it’s important to note that at the basis of all this music is an unmistakable sound of calm and meditation. Michael Cormier-O’Leary seems to enjoy putting the listener at ease and then crashing the party – sometimes subtly, other times not so much – as if to present the experience as a jarring alternative.

Field recordings also comprise part of Ease the Work, with Lucas Knapp credited with radio effects, field recordings, and piano. On the brief “Often Walking”, a faint radio broadcast is heard alongside walking sounds, bicycles, and generic outdoor conversations – reminiscent of Ernest Hood’s iconic Neighborhoods – before the entire ensemble engages in a short but memorable performance. Some of the songs are arranged so oddly that there doesn’t seem to be any sonic comparison anywhere: on “The Most Gorgeous Day in History”, Peter McLaughlin’s brushed drums back up against electric guitar and strings in a jittery, start-stop style, before the strings conclude the song with a majestic coda.

The final track on Ease the Work, “Kelly’s House”, seems to deconstruct the album’s concept as simply and sparsely as possible: opening with about a minute of lo-fi classical guitar strumming – as if Cormick-O’Leary is workshopping a melody – the remainder of the song is devoted to elegant strings playing simple chords in unison. It seems to wash away some of the more jarring moments by putting a beautiful bow on the entire project. Ease the Work is primarily a work of uncommon, resplendent beauty but performed in a manner that still manages to show the graceful beauty in the cracks and seams.

RATING 8 / 10