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Tim Hecker
Virgins Tristan Bath , October 14th, 2013 09:27

'Ambient' and even 'new age' are musical terms that belong firmly in the past by this point. Neither the scientific methodology of the former nor the bullshit ideology of the latter are in any way still present in the musics they've begat. Tim Hecker stands right at the forefront of mistitled modern ambient electronica, adopting many of the aesthetics of his forefathers, yet acting for a distinctly different cause. Since his de facto emergence with Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again back in 2001, Hecker's been using his seamless soundscapes to portray for audiences rather than hypnotise them. It's a subtle distinction, epitomised by 2003's Radio Amour, which saw Hecker at his most literal (or, perhaps more accurately, at his least unintelligible), broadcasting glitchy transmissions from an oceanic seascape, implying an obscured narrative of a soul lost at sea. Ambiguity and the arcane have remained Hecker's primary tools ever since, often working almost anti-prismatically as he takes disparate organic and synthetic elements and binds them together, twisting and blurring hi-def technicolor source material into decaying, monochromatic music.

While 2011's reverie on the destruction of music (or perhaps music's destructive power) Ravedeath, 1972 still remains Hecker's ultimate statement to date, Virgins continues the process of partially unveiling the organic life behind the static, diving deeper into menacing darkness and broadening the source elements at Hecker's disposal, which this time include woodwind in addition to the synths, pianos and pump organs he's recently favoured.

In many ways - and, perhaps, somewhat counter to my opening statements - the album occasionally shares sonic territory with pioneering ambient works from the 70s and 80s. The ghost of Eno & Laraaji's Day Of Radiance is present on the album's second track, 'Virginal I', exploring a bashed, dulcimer-like stuttering loop, while the stubbornly alien spirit of Klaus Schulze's opening statement Irrlicht is alive and well during 'Live Room's' dramatic retro organ climax. Oddly, while Hecker hasn't built a bed this distorted since his Aidan Baker collaboration, neither has his source material ever been as high definition. His aural scope is quite literally widening.

Virgins is in many ways Hecker's rawest solo outing to date, and the strands he plaits together are less tightly wound this time; the seams are increasingly audible and negative space is occasionally present rather than merely simulated, as on Ravedeath. Most literally this development lives in the breathing space between several tracks - until now Hecker's albums almost exclusively segued track-to-track - but negative space is vital to several key moments, such as the stammering finish to 'Black Refraction'. The sound of a melancholic acoustic piano figure restlessly loops, only to be met by its doppelganger in reverse, before ultimately it's gated out of the mix piece by piece, firstly eliminating all but the sound of stomping on pedals, with silence eventually usurping any semblance of the instrument at all.

The attribution of particular meaning or concept to his music is something Hecker tends to sidestep, yet his titles still frequently hint at hidden truths and messages beneath the surface. The apparent narratives of Radio Amour and Ravedeath 1972 - an oceanic disaster story and the exploration of music's relationship with destruction, respectively - are both implied via whispered hints and possible red herring titles, rather than anything more explicit.

Unlocking the reasons behind Virgins' title may be fruitless, yet the presence of the word does linger in the mind. Perhaps it refers to the innocent sounds Hecker corrupts with his increasingly vicious processing and edits. 'Virginal I' and 'II' both make use of what may or may not be the bastardised sound of the titular baroque instrument, the double meaning perhaps referring to the legions of young maidens who mastered the old keys for the entertainment of others. Music as a tool for oppression? Now there's a thought. A brief, sparse, atmospheric interlude entitled 'Incense At Abu Ghraib' sees the album pause for respite. Abu Ghraib, the infamous location of heinous prisoner abuse by US soldiers during the most recent Iraq War, is one of several recent cases wherein music was used as a device for torture. The album's cover even alludes to the famed image of a hooded and cloaked victim of Abu Ghraib. Perhaps Virgins is the sound of music itself being tortured? The album's journey is not utterly hopeless however, and while the album closing 'Stab Variation' sees Hecker evoking torture, beating the music into submission over its first half, it ultimately fades away into a soothing and reconciling drone, as it perhaps finally escapes Hecker's grasp to enter the the blissful nothingness of the void.

Virgins is Tim Hecker at his most thought-provoking and enigmatic. This is definitely neither 'ambient' music, nor 'gltich' music, nor 'new age' music or anything of the like. Hecker's trailblazing. His dizzying process and sculptor's skills are working on behalf of the forces of darkness, here as on Ravedeath, 1972 postscript Dropped Pianos, and the distortions and mutations he impacts upon his source material have never been more stark yet tangible. He's haunted us and haunted us, and now he's doing it again.

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