Music Reviews

Tim Hecker Virgins

(Kranky) Rating - 7/10

Between this and Hookworms’ Pearl Mystic, it’s been a good year for creepy sheet featuring album covers. What’s particularly striking about Virgins’ cover image though, once you get past the initial Scooby Doo-induced suspicions and realise that it is in fact a church statue under restoration - both explaining that provocative album title and nodding to Hecker’s recent live venues of choice – is how similar the shrouded figure’s posture is to those sickening photos of torture carried out by US forces in the Middle East. And, just in case there was any question as to whether such a similarity was a weird coincidence, there’s the track title Incense at Abu Ghraib to explicitly spell out the connection for you.

As to whether it’s wise to bring up such strong, and still controversial, imagery in relation to a record, and a purely instrumental one at that… well, it’s an interesting question. Is it a bit gauche to tack such nods onto a work of non-figurative art? Or are the complexities of the issue so overwhelming that they can only really be accurately captured in the abstract? It’s one of those borderline rhetorical questions that are made for exam questions and dissertation titles, rather than answering in a record review. However, while there’s no definitive response to be found here, there is a surprising, but appropriate, amount of anger and genuine discomfort among this latest installment of Hecker’s trademark waves of glitch and decay. 

Interestingly, considering his (perhaps inaccurate) reputation as an ‘ambient’ artist, there’s very little effort made to work the album’s material into a cohesive whole. While certain tracks will run into each other, presumably created as larger works and split into movements, others will have jarring jolts between them, setting off a genuine sense of the uncanny, and suggesting that most unsettling thing in the digital age: corrupted files. Quite whether this makes it a more commanding listen or not entirely fit for intended purpose is a matter for debate; there’s a far broader scope here than anywhere else in Hecker’s back catalogue, but on the other hand, the all-enveloping quality that made his previous album, and something of a breakthrough (relatively speaking) Ravedeath, 1972 such a success is not to be found here; instead, these abrasive textures are more the work of the man who earlier in his career gleefully chopped up Van Halen interview clips to create the My Love is Rotten to the Core EP.

The notion of ‘wrongness’ is something that Hecker seems very keen to play around with here – Prism opens the record with a long drawn out orchestral drone that seems queasily off somehow, like the harmonies are slightly out of tune, and that the note isn’t strong enough to keep sustaining itself, yet it keeps going, and instead of correcting itself just gets more jumbled, and insistently loud like a stress headache. A feeling that’s later reconjured by the aforementioned Incense at Abu Ghraib – a slow-motion Herrmannesque shriek that could’ve been a snippet from the missing soundtrack to Douglas Gordon’s video art endurance test 24 Hour Psycho.

Then there’s Virginal I, whose chiming piano loops would make a kind of sense, falling into a pattern similar to church bell chimes if it weren’t for the odd notes that pop up here and there, or the muddy string section that’s been overlaid on top, or the deliberately amateurish dynamic shifts and, most infuriatingly, the way that it only really finds a melody in its last few seconds before it’s abruptly severed (and then picked up just as abruptly several tracks later). 

It’s fair to say that there are some deliberate audience disengagement methods going on, bringing up another one of those tricky, ultimately unanswerable questions (yes, another one); what is the audience expected to get out of this, if anything? Is it a case of the artist self-indulgently rebelling against his reputation as purveyor of mostly pleasant background listening, is it as tribute to the human brain’s incredible ability to find beauty and patterns in even the most disordered sources, or is it a carefully planned and well executed attempt to shock the listener into some sort of awareness? (If pushed for an answer, then somewhere in between the three). There definitely is a physical reaction to said wrongness, a sort of nauseating dizziness accompanies each lurch and volte-face – like those playground semi-factual rumours about brown-notes or cartoons giving children seizures (but with consequences in turn less unpleasant and tragic).

Perhaps the fact that the first couple of tracks are especially ‘off’ really just marks them out as a playful warning for the big, brutish slabs of noise that follow, whose audio waves feel solid enough to substantially furnish any room that they’re played in. Radiance masks an attractive melody in a thick, gloopy fog (a sensation that Hecker previously evoked in Ravedeath’s In the Fog I-III, and, to be honest, much of his recorded output), while Live Room switches between elegiac sci-fi score synths and reverb-heavy violence and chaos; an upright probably hasn’t been this abused since George Maciuna’s DIYtastic Piano Piece #13 (a work probably best known for Sonic Youth’s take on it during one of their more wilfully difficult periods). 

As it continues, the album does seem to get more coherent, whether intentionally or as a result of listener adjustment is unclear, and as it does, it brings a wider range of instruments than Hecker has ever worked with before into play as well – the soft woodwinds of Stigmata II, or the fairly self-explanatory Amps, Drugs, Harmonium – but Virgins is still at its best when he reverts to past form and relies most heavily on evident digital trickery, such as in the churning and compulsively rhythmic pulses of Stab Variation, the racing feedback of Stigmata I, or the 8-bit audio vomit of Virginal II.

While we may be avoiding answering questions, there is one that it would be remiss of any reviewer to not at least consider; does Virgins live up to the expectations created by Hecker’s career up to this point, (or its unsettling artwork)? And well… no, it probably doesn’t; the lush Ravedeath, or the unexpectedly chirpy Haunt Me, for example, used a more limited palette but offered more emotionally engaging moments to latch on to. What it does manage to do, however, is function as an engagingly visceral work of provocation, on balance interspersing his trademark beauty with enough challenging moments to reward repeated visits, even if listening to it never exactly feels like a pleasurable experience, and maybe that’s enough.