Review Summary: Hecker applies his refined approach with a refreshed sonic palette, producing breathtaking, but also lackluster moments. The result is a unique and ultimately worthy addition to his catalogue.
At the heart of gratifying ambient music is an ability to induce a meditative state by creating sparse, cloud-like instrumental layers. Grasping at this quality certainly has the potential to be transcendent, but can wind up underwhelming and forgettable if it's not executed masterfully. Noise music, though superficially unrelated, is reaching at a similar sort of transcendence--but instead via sonic annihilation. It faces a similar dilemma in that its essential features can lead to its own undoing; what is initially perceived as exhilarating in noise too often grows vacuous without skilled variations in intensity and tone. Over the past 15 years of working under his birth name, Montreal-based Tim Hecker has learned how to circumvent these pitfalls by cleverly juxtaposing the two, and in doing so has produced some stunning results throughout his discography. The ethereal sections of his music derived from ambient are even more
beautiful than they would be independently when contrasted with his powerful noise sections--ranging from stuttering, to abrasive, to dizzying, to monolithic--which at his best possess a certain beauty of their own. Sometimes they're even present simultaneously, which generates interesting outcomes. It's a striking and fascinating synergy, and it's what sets Hecker apart from most other ambient and noise musicians alike.
His latest effort, Love Streams
, is his eighth full-length release, and finds him applying his refined formula in some novel ways. From the jump, opener "Obsidian Counterpoint" displays his newfound affinity for placing rigid, tangible melodies at the forefront of songs--it's a conscious step away from the hazy, shapeless quality that has permeated his work up until recently--something he first explored in a more jarring fashion on his last record, which he applies with a gentler touch, and greater diversity here. As of late, Hecker's approach has generally consisted of taking samples from recordings of live instruments, manipulating them--through processing, looping and layering--and employing them in conjunction with his trademark electronics. For the first time however, he's incorporated vocals. Human voices
; they might seem like an ill-fitting addition to his typically desolate soundscapes in theory, but by in large the Icelandic Choir Ensemble's performances (arranged by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) are integrated seamlessly, seeking to elevate Hecker's otherworldly atmospheres. No finer are they exercised than in earth-moving center-piece "Castrati Stack" and its successor, "Voice Crack". The former, a glacial behemoth wherein the choir is the focal point amidst whirling synthesizers, tumultuous electronics, and thunderous bass, until the song is gradually engulfed by cascading synths and pattering metallic percussion--the end result is striking, it's arguably the best stand-alone track of the album. It transitions smoothly into the latter, which features a busy harpsichord beneath perpetually stuttering electronics that ultimately give way to the choir once again, this time singing with a mournful air as the other instruments fade, leaving the voices to stand alone in their majesty. Whenever they're present in an unedited form, they imbue their movements with a uniquely divine quality, and an uncanny hint that there's something greater at work than can be fully understood.
can effectively be divided into two halves, and one can only assume this is how he'll split up the physical record. The first and less impressive half contains up to track six, and opens with "Obsidian Counterpoint" and "Music of The Air", which serve to set the stage and draw the curtains by introducing his refreshed sonic palette, and building pressure for what is to follow. Unfortunately, any anticipation these two tracks are able to garner is immediately diffused by "Bije Dream", a dizzying movement lacking any real substance or direction. This disappointing pattern repeats itself in the following triplet: "Live Leak Instrumental" is reminiscent of track one and segues into the pulsating "Violet Monumental I", wherein tensions mount, only to be let down by its ironically titled sequel "Violet Monumental II", which is oversaturated with loops that aren't focused on any particular end--again, failing to capitalize on the momentum of the preceding songs. In the second half however, Hecker boasts greater consistency, cohesion and flow: "Up Red Bull Creek" delicately preludes the aforementioned highlight suite of "Castrati Stack" and "Voice Crack", followed by the bouncy and melodic "Collapse Sonata", which at its half-way point begins to stammer, and subsides, only to segue into the album's monolithic finale. If "Castrati Stack" has a rival in the tracklist, it's this: "Black Phase" features a menacingly hefty, signature Tim Hecker noise instrumental--similar to the climax of "Whitecaps of White Noise II" (from his 2006 Harmony in Ultraviolet
), but more refined--which is summoned into being by the Icelandic choir, accompanied by other live instrument samples. It wreaks grumbling havoc for five blissful minutes until slowly fading out of the mix, like a Boeing 747 gradually disappearing amidst the vague skyline of a hazy night; it's an arresting finale, one of the best he's been able to assemble thus far.
As a whole, this isn't his best work to date, but Hecker still deserves applause for consistently trying to reinvent himself with each release since 2011's Ravedeath, 1972
by adding brand new sounds to his palette--it's played a crucial role in invigorating his recent work. When this album falters it's due to a resistance of inertia at distinct points, namely in the first half where momentum is ground to a halt on two occasions to make room for a couple of so-so pieces. Love Streams
exhibits its full potential in the second half though, providing a number of breathtaking moments that, for me, facilitate the contemplation of meta-level concepts, such as our futile insignificance with respect to time and space--or perhaps just help to make my bus-ride a little less dreary. However you want to describe the quintessence of what makes Tim Hecker a great musician, there's enough of it in this release to keep us looking forward to his next one.