The music of Tim Hecker and ambient music (a little categorical clarification: Tim Hecker is not “ambient” in a manner identical to the quintessential artists of the genre--e.g. Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid--but to exclude him from the genre because his laptop occasionally makes crunchy sounds would be nitpicky and is also the type of quibbling that ends in sh
it like “chillwave”) in general is hard to review almost by definition; to quote Wikipedia, it's “a musical genre that focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an "atmospheric", "visual" or "unobtrusive" quality.” That is to say, ambient music makes its dwelling in the outer fringes of what most of us consider “music,” and, as a result, it defies criticism in most respects. To phrase this as a question: what makes one Stars of the Lid album better than another? I know for a fact that And Their Refinement of the Decline
is an album I return to much more often than the (still-excellent) Tired Sounds Of
, but it’s not like the strings are timbrally preferable or the chords fuller or the structures more pleasant. It’s just that, whenever I listen to Decline
, I feel like a big ocean of exquisite strings is giving me the biggest, most warm hug for about two hours, and that feeling isn’t quite equaled by any other album.
If the above sounds stupid, that’s because it sort of is; it’s the immediate aesthetic reaction that most ambient music evokes rather than the more academic “positives/negatives” analysis which is probably what most of you are rightly expecting from a piece of writing like this. You probably know where I’m going with this: Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again
is a big, fifty-minute bundle of laptop-baked emotions; an album where the song titles tell more about the emotions evoked within than any piece of writing could. This raises the question: why am I reviewing this album if I’ve just pretty much disparaged the act of reviewing an album like this? It’s pretty much because I have faith in blurring in aesthetic/academic dichotomy--I think there’s something to be said for writing about albums that not only work on that “woah man I feel
this” level, but primarily
on said level.
To cut through the self-explanatory, apologetic trappings: opener “Music For Tundra, Part 1” works really
well despite the fact that it’s basically a single chord for five minutes; Hecker adds just the right amount of auxiliary fuzz and weird popping noises (hard to explain on paper but really cool in execution--check out about 1:10) and fragmented, Fennesz-esque guitar chords to add an exciting delirium to the track’s barren landscape (to tie in with the earlier “song titles = emotions within” remark, the song sounds pretty tundra-esque to my ears, although maybe that’s an example of that sort of I-only-associate-this-song-with-this-because-the-author-titled-it-as-such-and-had-he-not-I-would-never-have-made-that-association type deal going on).
Despite the track’s excellence, it’s in the corresponding Pts. 2 and 3 of the opening track in which the real genius of Haunt Me
lies. The tracks, which are maybe a little insubstantial on their own (1:57 and :39, respectively), gradually manipulate the environment created in their predecessor, masterfully adding and removing certain elements of Pt. 1’s dreamscape until the end result is something completely different. What’s really great about these tracks is the manner in which they go about this slow transformation process; Hecker is so meticulous that we barely notice the song changing at all.
In that sense, Haunt Me
--at least when played in sequential order--is imbued with a sameness that irks many ambient-skeptics, but that sameness actually turns out to be one of the album’s biggest strengths. To use a hackneyed comparison, the album sort of feels like a patched quilt; each song is embedded with different colors and patterns and motifs, but all made from the same cloth (an image strengthened by the album’s heavy use of segueing--the whole thing works as a continuous piece of music). The sonic difference between “Music for Tundra, Part 1” and clattering album centerpiece “The Work of Art in the Age of Cultural Overproduction” is astounding, but each step Hecker takes to get there feels completely natural. Structurally, this is one of the best ambient albums ever.
It’s this structural mastery, combined with the sort of impressionistic shards of noise and melody that Hecker is so good at, that leads the album back to the “atmospheric” and “visual” quality described earlier. Primarily, Haunt Me
uses as a mix of the prettiness often associated with ambient music and a unique industrial twist (more backwards association: in the most abstract of ways, the album sounds like its cover looks). This creates a unique visual experience, a sort of magical-carpet ride that belies some of the more ominous features of its surrounding landscape; a blue sky quickly dissolves into large chunks of noisy factory-grime clouds. I especially love it when Hecker combines these two elements in unexpected ways, such as in “Arctic Lover’s Rock, Part 2,” which uses a female vocal sample but distorts it and lets it deteriorate, after which the aforementioned “Work of Art” picks up the residue and swiftly cleaves it into its rattling call-and-response drones. Eighteen minutes later on “Ghost Writing, Part 2,” Hecker uses a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
(of all things!) sample, manipulating the volume and echo until it sounds like it’s coming from a room two floors below, riding atop the soundwaves of a buzzing microwave or of wind snaking through and out of an air conditioner.
If I’m losing you again: Haunt Me
takes fragments of things that are recognizable on some level and buries them among layers and sheets of fuzzy, supernatural, Tim Hecker-y stuff and forms a sort of isomorphism between these two elements (i.e. the weird vs. the normal, the former of which dominates on this here album) and their critical equals--the super-aesthetic vs. that which can be written about easily. So while its structure (which belongs to the latter of the latter) is essential to its success, it’s only that way because of the way it self-constructs a gorgeous dream-quilt of noise and female vocal samples and plinks and plops and warm string chords. That right there is some righteous, unreviewable sh