If I were to make my own distinction in the nature of things, it would be between stuff that beats into the earth and stuff that sort of floats on top of it — stuff that relentlessly enforces itself and stuff that is magically lifted by its own inner balance. I say this because, listening to Tim Hecker’s new release, Virgins, I realize that his music has become a perfect manifestation of that duality: a formation born of the courting of the mechanical and the spiritual.
What you immediately notice about Virgins with respect to Hecker’s consistently reputable oeuvre is a certain shift in focus. Associated above all with ambient soundscapes and artists such as Stars Of the Lid, I have always regarded Hecker’s musical production as activity that arises out of passivity. Even on 2011’s acclaimed Ravedeath, 1972, which contained a considerable amount of sonic movement, it was on the whole a certain circular withdrawal into itself — tracks fade in and out with repose, and remain as untouchable as the enigmatic aftertaste of rave itself. The sketches for Ravedeath, which were released afterward as Dropped Pianos, illustrate well that movement of serene formation and disappearance. The sense of time on Virgins, however, is different: there’s a much stronger sense of overall growth and movement: even tracks such as “Incense at Abu Ghraib,” which remain very much contained, preserve their sense of drive and élan by virtue of the transitions and segues that weld them together. This is ambient music without abstraction: a lowered gaze of incisive vision.
If you core into a hill with ravenous machines, you will expose beautiful layers of sedimentary time. Thinking about how that ecstatic rush of a biting blade prises open the purity of a rock brings out the kind of reaction you might feel in relation to Virgins: there’s a real violence channeled into the noise that reverberates the album, but one that also agitates and unveils simple, enduring harmonic moments. That rip-raw sound that Ben Frost’s By The Throat executed so well finds itself voiced more prominently here than on any other Hecker release. The sound exposure is maximal, with immensely heady onslaughts that excavate the “grain” of sound — put on “Prism,” the album’s opener, at full volume and you will know exactly what I mean.
This sense of immersion comes about because of the live quality of the sound: there’s a certain immediacy and lack of distance between sound and listener. Moments of particular beauty occur when this is brought out into the open, for instance on “Live Room Out,” when everything is pared down to the simple moving harmonies of two husky organ lines, exhaling and inhaling. Although engineered by electronic means, the album feels truly embodied in space and its formation is very much alive in real-time.
Virgins is music that breathes both religious mysticism and transcendence on a secular terrain; the spiritual is the purity of sound, the virginal quality of the grain. This is always created by the opposition of violence and release. Piano lines on “Virginal I” and “Live Room” hammer insistently and insatiably, but not quite metronomically, like machines sliding out of control. The general sense of ecstatic disorientation occurs by the collision of such parts that Hecker overlays: they are individually immodest, uncompromising, and fuse unwillingly. The spiritual balance that emerges is the intoxication of this heterogeneity, thrown into perception by the contrast of the timeless, morphing drones that Hecker is so very good at forging.
So what you get are various mechanisms circling and circling, whose melodic beauty is exposed by the surrounding noise: the rhythmic and harmonic become the melodic, or rather the melodic is rendered futile by the recognition of the primacy of those primal forces — the harmonic and the rhythmic — of which it is essentially formed. “Stigmata II” is the supreme example of the remnants of melody, a serene dance of recurring beeps, and “Stab Variations,” the closing track, beats out the testimony of its death.
I guess nobody is really doubting the expertise of Tim Hecker, which he has displayed over his decade-long career. Virgins is, however, no lull in that sequence of releases: he runs no risk of churning over the same drones; this album has all the presence that you should expect it to have.