Have you ever experienced a moment where the music you're listening to seems to inform the action around you or vice versa? They don't happen all that frequently, but the few times I've had them occur have resulted in some of the most potent music-related memories I hold. Sometimes it's something as simple as a crow cawing in perfect sync with some vocals (creepy as fuck too), sometimes it can just be written off as the song's atmosphere bleeding into your interpretation of your surroundings, but sometimes it gets to the point where I began to wonder whether I was actually controlling something that I shouldn't have control of. The first time I heard Do Make Say Think's Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn I was walking to school. It would have been fall of my first year of college so the streets I was walking down were wholly deserted at the point I was trekking out. I had "Fredericia" blasting through my headphones as I walked towards a little pathway through the edge of a park that cut an unnecessary corner off my commute, but as I entered the pathway two things happened at the exact same time: the jazzy groove of "Fredericia" exploded into that first loud section and a very strong gust of wind picked up around me. If it had just been that I would have written it off as coincidence, but the fact that the gust of wind lasted exactly as long as that first loud section and that it picked up again just as the second one hit made it feel like something beyond that. I literally thought that I was controlling the wind with my Discman. It was at once unbelievably creepy ad strangely enthralling. Of course it never happened again, but that one event pretty much cemented DMST as my go to post-rockers for a good few months.
Of course even without the added stimulation that experience provided me, I think I'd have come to that conclusion anyway. Having already heard the first three Do Make Say Think albums (and having loved Goodbye Enemy Airship, The Landlord Is Dead as much as I had any other post-rock album at that point) it was clear that Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn was a step above what they had been doing beforehand. The playing was tighter, the climaxes were more devastating, the jazzier touches were more thoroughly composed and the overall effect of the album was just greater than any of their previous outings. It wasn't wholly focused on the climaxes either, preferring a sort of ebb and flow structure where the climaxes weren't so much a means to an end as a natural consequence of the way the songs were laid out. For once it was post-rock where the excitement wasn't wholly housed with those moments that the band got loud, but in hearing exactly how those moments came to be, hearing the slow builds that were happening underneath the surface waiting to break free as opposed to being shocked by a sudden explosion. It was sophisticated in a way that few albums of its ilk could claim to be, and even if I didn't fully understand the mechanics of that back in 2003 I could see that it felt so much more substantial than most other records of its ilk.
There's also something to be said for the way the album as a whole is structured. As the title suggests we're really dealing with a trio of short segments - the vinyl layout makes this more obvious with each of the separate Hymns getting its own side of wax - not a traditional album. The thing is that despite the triad at its core it still plays just fine as a proper 52 minute album, with the delineation between each subsection being at once obvious yet not distracting. If we look at it in thirds it's three perfectly realized mini-albums, especially the second triad where the band's jazzier side gets to shine the brightest, but looked at as one unit it doesn't seem too disjointed. The jazzy horns of "Ontario Plates" don't sound too alien next to "Horns of a Rabbit" even if the latter has one of the grittiest sounding climaxes of the whole album, and "Auberge le mouton noir" sounds absolutely perfect as a lead in to "Outer and Inner Secret." A lesser album wouldn't have done so much to make sure it's separate sides worked so well together, putting all the focus on how well the trios work on their own without considering how they worked together. It's a great example of how sequencing can be the make or break element of an album like this; if the flow was too greatly compromised, regardless of the overall quality of the material I doubt I'd have much time for it.
Of course the quality of the material is absolutely stellar here. "Fredericia" is an ideal opener, kinetic drumming and a nice snaking bassline giving way to a pair of exhilarating climaxes - the dissonant horn build up to the first one would probably still send chills down my spine even if I didn't have that whole wind storm experience to associate it with - that put the rest of the genre to shame, but I've become a much bigger fan of the sublime closer "Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!"'s gentle acoustic guitar and assorted jazzy solo breaks. Outside of those formidable bookends there's the amazing almost straight jazz of "Ontario Plates" whose oddly syncopated main riff makes it seem almost Tortoise-y in places, the shorter but incredibly well paced "Horns of a Rabbit" and it's percussive leadout "It's Gonna Rain" and the near-perfect post-rock of both "Auberge le mouton noir" and "Outer Inner and Secret." The more interlude-y tracks aren't much on their own outside of "It's Gonna Rain" but they serve their purpose in the scope of their respective sections as well as you could expect. There's not a wasted moment here, and since it doesn't go out of its way to fill up the Cd to capacity it doesn't even begin to wear out its welcome.
Winter Hymn... might not be the best post-rock album of the decade, but it's one that has a special sort of significance. It's not just the whole wind thing that I can't hear "Fredericia" without reliving - it was seriously a frightening yet oddly exhilarating experience - but the fact that it might have been the first step in my road towards focusing less on lyrics than on the actual construction behind the songs. I'd heard a bit of instrumental stuff before, but this was the first album that I recall actively losing myself in the complexities of the arrangement and actively figuring out why certain parts worked so well. So in a way my obsession with Winter Hymn is somewhat responsible for my new lease on pop music - it's an odd connection to make, but it makes sense to me, and the importance it has in that regard all but guaranteed that it would wind up in a fairly lofty position on this list.