Psychology and fantasy intermingle on HAMSTANK’s ethereal and angsty album

HAMSTANK‘s new concept album, Rise of the Giant King, begins with some pretty grisly imagery: the skies weep, agents of chaos reign supreme, and darkness is purveyed indiscriminately. Imagine a PG-rated Hieronymus Bosch painting. The origin of this mayhem is somehow related to the ascent of the Giant King, an ancient evil whose snooze alarm is going off. Shudder-inducing, yes, but as the opening narration mixes with wandering reeds, bobbing strings, and intertwining harps, the whole actually gives rise to a bright and bittersweet sound. And it is through this musical lens that HAMSTANK seems less like a purveyor of darkness and more like an uncle doing his best old man impression, as if he’s reading aloud to a child.

Rise of the Giant King is the brainchild of a young music producer, Tony Hamoui. It’s thoughtful, wonderfully earnest, and a little bit nerdy. It seems likely someone read him The Hobbit when he was very small. The album is only half pretend folklore, though. The other half is rooted in modern (or maybe timeless) psychological stress—“I can’t think straight anymore . . . I’m breaking down, my dear”—and interweaving these two halves, narratively, and musically, is what the album sets out to do.

For the music, this means the medieval is paired with the pop-y. Flutes and harps give way to soft, grungy guitar riffs, and theatrical narration shifts to mopey vocal fry. “Ode” is a good example. It mixes an atmosphere redolent of Zelda and Skyrim soundtracks with melodies more in line with The Plain White T’s. “Wander,” similarly, pairs campfire acoustic strumming with a soothing and meandering trumpet. This equilibrium is occasionally disturbed, though, as one half clearly overpowers the other. The trumpets and mandolins don’t put up much of a fight as the dull twang of the guitar lays siege on “Float,” or as distortion runs rampant at the end of “Sleep/Dream.”

The two threads running through Rise of the Giant King, the fantastical and the psychological, may also be thought of as the past rippling through to the present. To underscore this idea, HAMSTANK draws from another source of supernatural fantasy, the Twilight Zone. The referenced episode, “Walking Distance,” is about a miserable and nostalgic man who inadvertently time travels to his youth, indirectly breaking his younger self’s leg along the way. On “Float”, backed by uptempo and vaguely uplifting guitar riffage, we hear his childhood father: “You have to leave here . . . Try looking ahead.” When he does return to the present he has lost his nostalgia, but he walks with a limp.

The Giant King lives in the past, but the mental havoc he wreaks exists now. Where’s the link? The album’s fantasy narrative doesn’t really provide a literal explanation, a bit disappointingly, but the metaphor is still a strong one. History haunts. The last chapter, “Smile,” finally offers a meta mind-bend of a solution: “Just go and write a song about a Giant King or something I don’t know.” In an atypical move from folklore (even fake folklore), it references its own creation. Does this mean the album was in fact an emotion regulation strategy all along? Was it the turning of past Giant Kings into therapeutic bundles of angst for a new day’s ears?

Whatever the answer, he still prefers you call him Lord of Blight and Despair.

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