The Hammer Dulcimer is often associated with down-home folk music, the type played around the table in a log cabin up in the hills of Colorado or Tennessee. Its folksy nature has allowed it to become a mainstay in the traditional music of America, ingrained as deep as the harmonica, acoustic guitar and mandolin. While the Hammer Dulcimer is usually partnered in our collective conscious with simple, folk-based melodies and harmony, when this stringed-percussion instrument is placed in the hand of a master performer its simplistic character is transformed into an instrument of seemingly endless possibilities, an instrument that more closely resembles a harp or piano than anything else.
Composer, arranger and performer Joshua Messick is one such virtuoso on the instrument, and his album Desire for Departure is a masterful collection of 14 songs that showcase the harmonic, melodic and tonal possibilities of the Hammer Dulcimer. Take the song “Flames of Joy” for instance. Here, Messick’s arpeggiated harmonic progression, countered with a reverb-tinged melody line, come together to sound more like a piano or harpsichord. What is truly captivating about his performance, on this song and the rest of the album, is how big Messick can make the Hammer Dulcimer sound. “Innocent Lament” is a great example of the wide range of timbres that Messick is able to coax out of his instrument. Accompanied by a native American sounding drum beat, as well as a Middle-Eastern inspired background phrase, Messick is able to carefully accent specific notes in the Dulcimer line that sound as if he is playing with two hands on a piano, rather than with mallets on a Dulcimer.
It is moments like this where Messick’s musicality shines through. Many virtuosos make their reputation by simply playing faster or more complex than their peers, but players such as Messick define their virtuosity through the subtle ways in which they manipulate the sound of their instrument. Messick is a composer and arranger of the highest caliber, skills that only accentuate his mastery of the Hammer Dulcimer, not take away from his playing in any way. Few people can write or play at the level that this Kansas resident does, and even fewer can do both during their musical careers.
While some people might shy away from buying an album of instrumental Hammer Dulcimer music because of their preconceived notions or previous experience with the instrument, Desire for Departure is not your typical folk-country Dulcimer album. Messick’s music is well-written, carefully arranged and performed at a world-class level, everything one would ask for in any album, regardless of the instrument or genre classification. Interestingly, the album has been classified by iTunes as being “Religious.” While it is true that Messick is a person of faith and his faith influences his music and compositions, this shouldn’t deter people who are not interested in Religious music from checking out this album. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, or thoughts on Religious music, the songs on this record transcend any kind of categorization or genre. They are just good songs written from the heart.
Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)