Tim Hecker’s last album proper, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, was a sepulchral affair; true to its title, the ghost of a kind of rave music oscillated throughout but through a murky, foggy, doom-laden haze. It was cold yet overwhelming, appropriate given that much of it was recorded on the organ in an Icelandic church. Virgins carries through many of the melodic and sonic markers of Ravedeath, 1972 (including that recurring fogginess) but is altogether more spectral, more colourful, albeit no less mysterious.
Opening track Prism is well named, light cuts through clouds of aural murk, then transforms into the piercing, chaotic, trebly piano arpeggi of Virginal I which glisten, flicker, dim in the dark. Already the melodies (if that’s the right word) reflect that of Ravedeath, 1972, but it’s not about the melodies, it’s a record that continues Hecker’s exploration of texture. He reflects a kind of abstract expressionism, Rothko blown up to an even greater, gothic scale, strip-lit and metamorphosing before your eyes. Such verbiage may invoke a digital version of, say, Morton Feldman but Virgins is no For Philip Guston, it’s not self-important and it billows along at a pace, Lynch meets Argento. There are traces of the latter’s favoured composers Goblin, as well as the former’s forays into in sound design and composition (most particularly the industrial soundscape of Eraserhead); Live Room is the more bombastic moments of Suspiria both inflated and muted, twisted, creepy, with creaking, straining, diegetic sound thrown in too – you’re in the horror film with the score deafening you as you desperately scramble away from your assailant.
If that all sounds over-the-top then the empurpled prose is at fault, not the music which - while demanding to be played at considerable volume - is never anything other than well measured. For all its BIG moments, Virgins also has plenty of quieter ones too, as with Live Room Out, the ghostly, more minimal sibling of its similarly named predecessor, or Black Refraction’s repeating piano motifs, fragments of a depressed Satie heard through a stretched tape loop at a séance, clattering medium’s table and all. The use of ‘real’ or ‘room’ (read non-instrumental) sound in some ways disrupts the engagement of the listener, but it also draws the listener further in – what noise is in the room or environment that you occupy, and what is on the record?
This is one of the more readily identifiable markers of what makes Hecker such a peerless composer-producer; while the use of digital instruments and manipulation is overt, its collision with the acoustic, the analogue and the ‘real’ often leaves one unclear as to where one element ends and the other finishes; this miasma never feels forced (although it does sometimes feel like there are elements being pushed together with great force), it is always purposeful.
Virgins may not be a work that seems terribly subtle on first approach, but it is in fact nuanced, intriguing, entrancing, disquieting. Just as Francis Bacon’s art sought to “Return the onlooker to life more violently”, Virgins finds Hecker approaching a return of the listener to life more spectrally (in both sense of the word). There is a deep, dark undertow to this record, but light pierces the void in continually surprising ways, in a kind of inverted chiaroscuro; Hecker ably demonstrates that light is essential to render the darkness all the more appealing.
Tim Hecker’s ‘Virgins’ available worldwide on Kranky (except for Canada where it is available on Paper Bag Records).
Andrew R. Hill