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; 8.1; etcetera. It just happens that there is a conceptual framework, and a whole lot of context, I can’t put out of mind just yet, that stands in the way of the thing itself.
For more than ten years, Hecker has been one of the world’s finest sound sculptors, working at the interface of electronic and acoustic music. He’s in the same league as Ben Frost, Daniel Lopatin, and Aidan Baker, all of whom he’s literally been in league with, so it seems churlish to rank them further. Taking the heavily processed sounds of pianos, synths, woodwinds, and (on recent albums) church organs, Hecker layers up dense soundscapes whose tectonic plates seem to be shift and crash beneath turbulent weather systems, complete with storms, aurora borealis, and towering clouds. These are places you can explore, and decode, and get lost, and encounter the Void, or encounter yourself in a Solaris-like mirror of the Id… or simply turn down the dial for some soothing ambience, as Eno-intended.
The earliest albums, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again (2001) and Mirages (2004) managed to be spectral without being slight, each track like a shape seen through fog, almost but never quite resolving into melody. With Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006) Hecker adopted a kind of beat-less alternative to rhythm: the simple yet brilliant effect of cutting out sounds abruptly, whether by rapid fades from drones that had been building to crescendo, the unheimlich combination of maximum attack (applied to relatively natural sounds) but no decay, or increasing the distortion until the speakers spit and crackle at the listener, but with the pattern or pulse in the incidence of effects rather than the drone to which they’re applied.
Virgins is not a dramatic departure from Harmony, Imaginary, or Ravedeath 1972 (2011); the latter being where a new wave of listeners came in (obligatory mention here of its Juno Award; Canada’s substantially hipper accolade than, say, the Mercury Award). Ever exploring, bridging the past and future, Hecker puts the virginal centre-stage – a primitive harpsichord that provides a more percussive, irregular clatter, for a tumbling, shimmering cascade of notes. As ‘Radiance’ acknowledges, this is territory explored on the classic Eno-production Ambient 2: Day of Radiance (1980), filtered through Hecker’s own methods (although the track itself reverts to a more serene wash of woodwinds).
What’s also happened since the last album is a dalliance with Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix, namely Instrumental Tourist (2012), that merged their respective MOs and, apparently, their copious drug stashes. As readers of DiS and its kindred-sites will know, Lopatin has generated some of the most feverish theory in the history of hackdom, for his resuscitation of the most ersatz tones of early electronica. His disruptive collision of textures, and manipulation of synth-sounds so critically reviled (or just cheesey) as to be abject, has made Lopatin a critical darling, and his choice of vocal samples as a substitute for beats resembles Hecker’s own technique. To criticize an experimental artist for doing too much is like criticizing a rainbow for clashing with itself – and it would unfair to fault him for borrowing from a fellow-traveller – but in a few places it feels like Hecker has taken the least successful aspects of Lopatin, making a few tracks more like the remix of a great record than the great record itself. That’s to say, he comes close to enacting the sonic abomination of the Eighties (the gimmicky whooshes of ‘Prism’, the parping synth-horns on ‘Virginal II’) rather than bringing the sounds of different eras into a meaningful dialogue, as on ‘Live Room’ with its jagged rips across the canvas (Ben Frost’s signature sound) that have their own intrinsic beauty rather than some meta-significance we can take or leave.
Another essential release then, but a step towards theory-over-content that Hecker never really needed.
8Alexander Tudor's Score