Release Date: Oct 15, 2013
Record label: Kranky
Genre(s): Electronic, Club/Dance
If I were to make my own distinction in the nature of things, it would be between stuff that beats into the earth and stuff that sort of floats on top of it — stuff that relentlessly enforces itself and stuff that is magically lifted by its own inner balance. I say this because, listening to Tim Hecker’s new release, Virgins, I realize that his music has become a perfect manifestation of that duality: a formation born of the courting of the mechanical and the spiritual. What you immediately notice about Virgins with respect to Hecker’s consistently reputable oeuvre is a certain shift in focus.
In the large spectrum of dark, ambient electronic music released in 2013, it was hard to believe that anything would top The Haxan Cloak’s monumental Excavation. And in the spectrum of Tim Hecker’s impressively prolific career, it was hard to believe that he could top 2011’s career highlight Ravedeath, 1972. Tim Hecker has destroyed both of those milestones.
It was easier to sum up Tim Hecker‘s work when he was in a niche. Even though earlier releases like 2001’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again and 2006’s Harmony in Ultraviolet found the Montreal-based Hecker in full, impressive control of his sound, it wasn’t until 2011’s stunning Ravedeath, 1972 that his excellent work combined with high-profile opening gigs for bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros and reliably great word of mouth to make him the rarest of things in noise/experimental/ambient music: a breakout star. Which in context means more that plenty of people who don’t listen to most of Hecker’s contemporaries (such as Ben Frost, who assisted here and whose By the Throat is one of few recent albums that can match the visceral power of Hecker’s music) have heard or even heard of that album, rather than Hecker being in any danger of hitting the top of the charts.
Tim Hecker’s first album under his own name was called Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again. This was 2001: Ambient and electronic music was still ruled by the penetrating austerity of labels like Mille Plateaux and Raster-Noton—labels whose artists strove to make their music sound as digital as possible. Markus Popp's Oval, which inspired a lot of supposedly funny comments about whether or not its CDs were skipping, is still probably the best example of this—and in an era where CDs are starting to go the way of the public pay phone, probably the most quaint, too.
When NOW last talked to Tim Hecker, the Montreal experimental electronic musician told us that Virgins would be "less bombastic" and more of a "fabric weaver's album" than his previous full-length, 2011's Juno-winning Ravedeath 1972. These hints were mostly confusing at the time, as the heavily processed church organ drones of his last record were anything but bombastic, and what the hell is a "fabric weaver's album" anyway? It all makes sense once you hear Virgins. This time around, Hecker builds around recordings of small live ensembles, giving him a lot more little sounds and textures to work with than before.
Over six previous albums, Tim Hecker's ever-evolving textural and sonic palettes have been rivaled only by his compositional one. His use of acoustic instruments, synths, natural sounds, space, ambience, distortion, feedback, and a structured sense of intimacy, are juxtaposed against the unexpected. Filtered through dynamic editing processes, they alternately present the seductively serene as well as explosively turbulent.
Compulsive iTunes genre taggers might wind up hating Tim Hecker. The Canadian musician works at a foggy spaghetti junction of ambient drone, modern classical composition and speaker-testing noise, but never truly focuses his sound. Overall, though, he’s mastered this stylistic skittishness and you’ll do well to find much dispute about his talent.
Tim Hecker's music has always worked best at high volume—it makes for more tension when things go quiet. This was especially true of his last album, Ravedeath, 1972, which saw him make incredible use of a church organ to push his bass obsession to its limits. In making Virgins, his seventh solo album, Hecker recorded with a group of live musicians for the first time, resulting in a much more diverse set of sounds for the Canadian artist to work with.
When avant-garde electronic music crosses over from gallery spaces, Arts Council-subsidised performance venues, specialist magazines and blogs to the larger collective consciousness, you sometimes have to wonder which comes first: the chin-stroking conceptual framework that vastly extends (and sometimes seems to generate) such lengthy reviews, or some irreducible quality that writhes and morphs beneath the critical gaze, and will keep us scrutinizing this strange beast for years to come. To be clear: this is not a concern I have previously had with Tim Hecker in five years of heavy rotation, and raving to everyone that An Imaginary Country (2009) is so damn good, this is how it must have felt to hear Another Green World in 1975, or the second sides of Meddle (1971) and Low (1977). Nor is this the beginning of a hatchet-job, since Virgins is highly recommended; four stars; 8.
On his last solo album, Ravedeath, 1972, Tim Hecker seemed to be exploring his own frustrations with, containment within, and destruction of music. The song titles found him “In the Fog”, looked at his “Hatred of Music”, and discussed musical “Paralysis” and “Suicide”. The music itself (as is often the case with the drone master’s work) pushed and strained at the boundaries of expectation and patience.
Upon the release of 2011's Ravedeath, 1972, the plaudits extended to Tim Hecker seemed to know no end. The Canadian experimentalist had taken the sky-facing, blanketed ambient music of Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid and thrust it into the ground—all of a sudden this rhythmless music was intense, creepy, and macabre. .
Between this and Hookworms’ Pearl Mystic, it’s been a good year for creepy sheet featuring album covers. What’s particularly striking about Virgins’ cover image though, once you get past the initial Scooby Doo-induced suspicions and realise that it is in fact a church statue under restoration - both explaining that provocative album title and nodding to Hecker’s recent live venues of choice – is how similar the shrouded figure’s posture is to those sickening photos of torture carried out by US forces in the Middle East. And, just in case there was any question as to whether such a similarity was a weird coincidence, there’s the track title Incense at Abu Ghraib to explicitly spell out the connection for you.
Any work from Tim Hecker released in the afterglow of career-defining 2011 release Ravedeath, 1972 is going to understandably find itself under an intensified level of scrutiny. Heavy on the piano, in place of the church organ, Virgins retains the same ecclesiastical air and tectonic sub-bass rumblings as Ravedeath. Musically, it builds upon similar foundations, but there's something unsettlingly wild about Virgins.
'Ambient' and even 'new age' are musical terms that belong firmly in the past by this point. Neither the scientific methodology of the former nor the bullshit ideology of the latter are in any way still present in the musics they've begat. Tim Hecker stands right at the forefront of mistitled modern ambient electronica, adopting many of the aesthetics of his forefathers, yet acting for a distinctly different cause.
Tim Hecker is one of few contemporary musicians who demand to be listened to entirely on their own terms. Words like ambient and shoegaze are easy descriptors, but there’s nothing generic about a Hecker album, so while Harmony In Ultraviolet’s bleeding electronics and the poignant beauty of Mirages and An Imaginary Country may sound utterly different, they extend from the same creative wellspring. For Ravedeath, 1972, Hecker took his trademark vast sonic spaces to their logical conclusion, subjecting a day’s worth of organ recordings made in a church to digital manipulation until they sounded like music disintegrating from within.
The line between the avant garde and the mainstream has become increasingly blurred. Experimental artists like Dan Lapotin, James Ferraro and Julia Holter have released some of the highest profile releases of the past few years, and one of the most lauded albums of this ilk, Tim Hecker’s crushingly powerful Ravedeath, 1972, won a Juno award in 2011 against more traditional offerings. With its nebulous piano and pulsating synth work, the album felt like falling backwards into a dream.