Review Summary: Ambient death metal? Not quite how it sounds, but very good nonetheless.
Alien 8 Recordings hails Tim Hecker's Mirages
as an "ambient-death-metal classic in waiting". Hecker himself describes the recording as "the sound of the ruby-horned deer sharing sweet lies in the night". Now, the artist's claim is up for interpretation, I wouldn't dare attempt to decipher it, but the first description is enough to spike the curiosity of some or at least raise the eyebrows of others. No, this is no Sunn O))) offshoot, nor does it consist of endless drones of chugging or echoing woes of shrill, tortured cries. There is no overly aggressive assault here, no waist-high murk of ultra low frequencies... hell, aside from chord changes, if you could call them that, one may initially find it hard to pinpoint any sounds consistently establishing a set rhythm. That said, would it be fair to assume that this "ambient-death-metal" nonsense is misleading? Maybe not...
Now that some of the misconceptions may have been dismissed, it is important that the words "death" and "metal" are to be interpreted perhaps more as inspiration or experiment, not an attempt to bend genres. On this record Hecker, an ambient electronic artist, ensnares and commands a dark, brooding atmosphere that fluctuates in, out and between fields of noise, duration of dissonance and carefully executed dynamic shifts. While it is true that he does use a heavily distorted guitar, as in the very opening of the piece with opener Acephale
, it's entirely possible to mistake it for something else or simply miss it all together. The guitar's role here is not to bang out riffs, sound out chords, or even contribute sweeps, arpeggios, or any other lead techniques demanding of attention. Instead, crackling walls of noise are built from barely distinguishable lines or tentative feedback, acting as a means to thicken the mass of sound when Hecker sees it fit.
Mind you, these are not always a consistent field of feedback or gritty fuzz, these are deliberate waves that often collapse or pulsate at bay to give rise to harmonic echoes of synths. Later in the album, on the track Balkanize-You
, the harshness of the guitar is reduced to a significant degree and there is a subdued likeness to what you could find in an ambient track from some actual metal outfits. Other tracks also temporarily abandon the density of the reverberating guitar, allowing it to fade back into a quiet backdrop or into silence entirely. Once the intensity is diminished, Hecker is quick to counter at any point with either achingly serene synth waves, as in the slow-breathing swells of Celestina
, or modest melodies like the ones that seep their way into the textures of Incurably Optimistic!
Hecker also is very conscientious about his use of dissonance and, rather than lay heavily on drones of dissonant intervals or chord layers, there is a constant pull toward resolution that creates uplifting soundscapes in even the most somber moments. The duration of the album teeters on the idea of distorting the ambiance to a point before withdrawing to permit the expressive harmonies a chance to rise from or permeate through it entirely. Hecker also does a fine job at extending each track just as long as it needs to be, constantly shifting the mood appropriately without drawing it out too far. While the majority run only a few minutes each, some last just long enough to develop before segueing into the next. The final two tracks do both span nearly the last twenty minutes of the record, each a good deal longer than all of the previous, but are also some of the strongest offered.
Whether or not there are "death metal" tendencies or influence simply becomes irrelevant once the album has begun. Mirages
achieves a specific atmosphere that is at least partially indicative of this without dwelling too much or too long on it. As someone who listened to the album long before reading about the comparison I probably never would have necessarily labeled it as such, but knowing it after the fact it makes sense. Regardless, the fact still remains that this is a strong body of work that sets itself apart in a genre where the casual listener may have trouble differentiating. All the while Hecker still manages to infuse it with a novelty that reflects his strengths in dynamic expression, subdued restraint and harmonic execution. Definitely a must have for any at all interested in ambient music.
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