Review Summary: Virgins sees Hecker at his most lucid melodically and rhythmically, yet arguably represents his most challenging work to date.
Most music in the broad “ambient” arena ostensibly works best when it carves out a space for the listener to inhabit, often as concerned with the subject position of the observer as it is with the content of the music itself. With the burden of organization placed on color, timbre, and texture rather than clear rhythms or melodic content, the music can feel deceptively static, with listening more like looking at a painting or exploring a large irregular space. Perhaps this is why the experience for the ambient listener seems to lend itself more easily to cross-sensory visual metaphors than any other style. Tim Hecker’s strength as a sound artist has always been his ability to effectively mix this “visual” style with an immediacy and knack for barely-concealed melodicism that reveal his roots in more traditional electronic music.
For more than a decade, Hecker has been crafting expansive, sometimes gorgeous sound landscapes, injected with a sense of vitality through white noise and bass drones, which work on a more visceral level to pull the listener into Hecker’s sound space. This marriage of heady and heavy elements reached a zenith in 2011 with Ravedeath, 1972
, an album that for all its abstraction remained a truly immersive and personal listen. While this remains true of Hecker’s latest full-length Virgins
, in many ways the album is a departure from his past work.
, Hecker takes a decidedly more rhythmic approach to his by now well-established brand of sculpted, reverberating musical abstraction. Skittering, percussive piano and rich woodwind feature alongside the sweeping church organ and distortion sounds that have become signatures of Hecker’s recent music. While this record is still essentially beatless, the layers that make up these pieces often move along independently with distinct pulses and trajectories, creating polyrhythmic spirals of staccato piano motives, as in the “Live Room” suite, or gyrate mechanically in tandem as on opener “Prism.”
Much of this approach will be familiar to those who know Hecker’s previous work, but Virgins
possesses a certain ghostly eeriness and perhaps most importantly, a heightened attention to negative space that mark a departure from the cavernous, icy textures and pastoral drones of his past few releases. Hecker’s affinity for streaks of color, bursts of electronic noise, and spiky textures still shines through, shrouding the sometimes dense rhythmic figures in the kind of digital fog listeners know him for. Yet even at its most intense, there is a liberating openness to the pieces on Virgins
, an extraordinary clarity to the actual sound of this work that belies the density of the arrangements on display. At times the nakedness of woody, untreated bass clarinet or acoustic piano allows the listener to almost
see the spaces the album was recorded in, a degree of intimacy that is new to Hecker's catalogue.
This album sees Hecker at his most lucid melodically and rhythmically (Dropped Pianos
' bare sketches notwithstanding), and yet arguably represents his most challenging work to date. In the past Hecker has described his albums as failed attempts to crystallize his vision into an ideal form of "intellectually satisfying ecstatic music." Virgins
might be the closest he has come yet.