Music Reviews
Instrumental Tourist

Tim Hecker / Daniel Lopatin Instrumental Tourist

(Software/Mexican Summer) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

When two well-respected genre innovators join forces for one unified effort, corny phrases like “all-star collaboration” and “dream team” often get thrown around in anticipation. And while these phrases might seem applicable in referring to Instrumental Tourist, which features drone-masters Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never), it’s important to remember that these artists make music that is incredibly anti “all-star.” While some musicians in other electronic or experimental genres like to hide their identity to detach themselves from their music, anonymity is almost second-hand to ambient/drone artists. Their ambiguous, elemental, and subtly nuanced approach to sound-craft acts more as a mirror for listeners to reflect even their most personal emotions and thoughts, leaving little concern for the artist creating those sounds. The fact that so many people, especially those who don’t regularly listen to this experimental brand of ambient music, could find so much to get excited about in this collaboration means that these two artists have broken some serious barriers.

Of course, timing certainly plays its part in all of this, as there could not have been a better time for Instrumental Tourist to happen. Both artists are coming off of a spectacular previous year, with Tim Hecker’s brilliant, corrosive Ravedeath 1972 and Oneohtrix Point Never’s masterfully innovative Replica (aka my personal AOTY) both standing out as two of the best electronic albums of 2011. Catching two similarly focused-yet-completely distinct artists at what seems to be the prime of their careers makes comparisons inevitable, but these comparisons are better suited towards more traditional songwriters and musicians, not ones that take pride in creating dense, formless soundscapes. It makes you wonder if collaboration between these two artists would really showcase the strengths of each musician rather than just exist as another haunting soundscape.

This is ultimately what makes Instrumental Tourist unique, for not only is it a collaborative album by definition, it actually sounds like the work of two distinct artists of the ambient persuasion rather than just one big soupy bowl of sound. The albums twelve tracks are as droning and atmospheric as anything Hecker and Lopatin have ever created on their own, but now there’s a distinct sense of identity lying beneath the albums various sounds, with Hecker’s icy blizzards of static standing out firmly against Lopatin’s more rounded, nostalgic synth bubbles and disembodied vocal manipulations. As a result, Instrumental Tourist ends up feeling more like a concoction of sorts by two equally matched sorcerers from different realms, with the results as wildly unpredictable as they are fascinating.

The unpredictability of the albums twelve diverse pieces boils down to a simple understanding of chemistry. While the imprints of Hecker and Lopatin are pretty much found in every track, each one represents a unique mixture of each artist’s elements, with some more balanced and stable than others. Opening track Uptown Psychedelia, for example, is one of the albums less saturated tracks, as Hecker’s hazy, oscillating synth bursts dance around Lopatin’s warbling keyboard groans without ever truly joining together. The track still remains an exhilarating, albeit jarring opener, and fare’s better than other tracks, like the vague GRM Blue II, that fall victim to this lack of proper saturation. On the other hand, a few tracks, like the gorgeous, cathedral-bound Vaccination for Thomas Mann and album closer Vaccination II, feel a bit more one-sided in their delivery, with one collaborator stealing the show and the other contributing on a much more subtle level. Regardless, these are still wonderfully constructed ambient/drone pieces, and the peculiar talents of each musician is still in full focus.

However, the albums strongest moments are the ones where Hecker and Lopatin’s talents are at their most perfectly matched, with the ambitious producers complementing each other’s ideas while still remaining their own unique entity in the tracks DNA. The bracing, unforgiving Intrusions stands as a perfect testament to this, as Hecker’s contributions – nearly atonal assaults of static that sound like a malfunctioning TV set – are carried through the air by Lopatin’s dreamy synth waves, making for a soothing yet ear-piercing experience. This balance is brought into greater focus during the albums lush second half, where Hecker and Lopatin seem to find an ideal space for the two to exist musically. Tracks like Grey Geisha and Ritual for Consumption catch both artists at an almost spiritual level of coexistence, with each tracks visceral approach to droning ambience filling any and all spaces with which they are played in, both internal and external to the listener.

While nearly all of the albums tracks are engrossing to say the least, the pace of the album as a whole feels a bit off. Whereas many of Hecker and Lopatin’s previous ambient works flow seamlessly as one large piece built from a number of unique, interlocking structures, the tracks on Instrumental Tourist exist more as their own singular entities independent of one another. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this occasionally makes for some stark, contrasting transitions, as seen with Vaccination for Thomas Mann and Intrusions, which create for some intriguing juxtaposition. However, there aren’t enough moments like this throughout the album to truly justify the decision, and the soundscape approach that Hecker and Lopatin take on most of the albums tracks feel more suited for fluid integration with one another. Again, this hardly effects the quality of the stand-alone tracks, but this pacing decision makes Instrumental Tourist more appealing when approached track-by-track rather than as a full album.

It’s uncertain whether or not Instrumental Tourist would ever rank amongst the best works in either Hecker or Lopatin’s discography, but, if anything, the album stands out as a completely unique experience for both artists. All in all, Instrumental Tourist offers more proof that these two are undisputed masters in their field, regardless of how necessary a collaborative effort like this really is anyway.