Rating:As is the case with most of Tim Hecker’s work, it’s best to listen to Virgins as a whole piece rather than an album of 12 tracks. Not just because the music here works as a single 50 minute composition, but because Hecker is nothing if not a conceptually-minded artist. Hecker and contemporaries like James Kirby and Daniel Lopatin, with whom Hecker collaborated with on last year’s uncharacteristically disjointed Instrumental Tourist, have risen to experimental music prominence on the back of some of the most pressing and explorative musical ideas in recent years. It’s too much of a coincidence that all three artists each put out an album in 2011 exploring the seemingly modern, digital age anxiety of decay and its relation to memory, culture and music itself.
Hecker’s entry, Ravedeath, 1972, became his most celebrated album to date. The record saw the Canadian artist experimenting with live instrumentation, namely a pipe organ, guitar and piano taken from a single session in a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, in order to lay the foundation for Ravedeath’s temporal and sonic bruising with digital noise and synthesizers. Virgins seems spawned from a similar place while simultaneously rebelling against what came before it.
The record is the result of sessions with a small chamber ensemble prominently featuring woodwinds, piano and synthesizer. The focus remains on physicality and sonic extremes, letting the instruments coil into a compressed ball of hairy sound. Hecker accentuates things with an overt approach to production, adding and subtracting static textures and molding the sessions like a ball of clay riddled with sticks and rocks. While the approach could perhaps be called a departure for Hecker, the effect is very similar to previous work. “Radiance” opens with a bursting synthesizer loop before woodwinds start to creep in and hover tentatively at the periphery. On “Live Room,” rambling piano arpeggios dart around crashing percussion before an ascending synthesizer seems to swallow it all giving the proceedings a detached, glassy eyed beauty. Hecker remains interested in pure sound rather than composition and the instruments and their players are happy to oblige.
There is a fractured sense to much of Virgins. It’s true, Hecker creates the kind of ambient music that explores the absence of space, tending toward the kind of sensory overload that’s earned the artist noise distinctions in the past. Hecker’s reached transcendent heights with this approach before. Namely, on his 2006 album (and my personal favorite of his) Harmony in Ultraviolet, which somehow touched on a kind of cosmic radiance. But with Ravedeath and now Virgins, Hecker has (often compellingly) explored a space caught between organic and artificial that oftentimes belies emotion.
At the end of “Virginal, Pt. 1,” curiously, a softly played piano takes over after the glacial white noise fades, but it’s cut off almost immediately. Similarly, at the tail end of the gorgeous “Live Room Out” a mournfully distant piano is left alone before it quickly fades away. These flourishes must be intentional, but they hint at a vulnerability and humanity that, in their brevity, feels insignificant and otherwise lost. “Black Refraction” is a looping and layered piano piece that, despite its sparseness, somehow feels cluttered. You almost want Hecker to leave it alone. It’d be interesting to see what would happen if he simply let these softer moments play out organically in tandem with the more physical and demanding aspects of the album.
A telling bit of behind the scenes info on both Ravedeath, 1972 and Virgins is a man who’s received a producer credit on both: Ben Frost. Frost’s masterful (and apparently highly influential) 2009 album By the Throat was a reference point for Ravedeath and it’s an even more obvious one for Virgins with its mixture of battered orchestra and severe electronics. But where By the Throat hinted at primal violence and tortured ghosts, Virgins lacks the sonic and emotional range to be evocative or transformative at all. Perhaps it’s a harsh criticism. Hecker is one of the most conceptually (and sonically) interesting musicians currently working, but the man’s most recent output struggles to breathe life into those concepts.