It is a measure of how Tim Hecker’s stock has risen that the release of a meditative, instrumental album featuring a virginal is quite an event. Operating on the margins of electronic music, Canadian Hecker’s prize-winning 2011 album Ravedeath 1972 brought him wide attention and he consolidated his new-found, high priest status alongside Daniel Lopatin on Instrumental Tourist last year. For once the publicity has in proportion to quality, and Hecker’s supremely confident vistas of abstraction repay a lot of listening.
With Virgins, Tim Hecker has returned to working alone. He has produced an album of the north, recorded in Reykjavik as well as Seattle and his home town Montreal, populated with instruments suited to a wintry sort of chamber music – clarinets, oboes, and the virginal alluded to in the title (a 17th century harpsichord). This unlikely line-up, for an electronics wizard, takes the sound on Virgins in a different direction to Ravedeath 1972 – gentle where it was menacing, lit by a low sun where Ravedeath was fogbound. The results show again that Hecker is some sort of genius.
Track 1, ‘Prism’, packs the album’s entire sound into a small space – speeded up virginal and sampled bursts from an orchestra being played backwards at speed vie for supremacy in a confined space, while churchy organs swell and fade. It is sacred and profane, analogue and digital, calming and upsetting. From ‘Virginal I’, the second track on the album, the combination of instruments and atmosphere produces some special, unexpected sounds that are very hard to categorise. The virginal, usually a pretty, delicate, baroque instrument is banged and slammed, generating surprising menace in the process. A pulverising electro-magnetic field fills the track, chugging out over two minutes of layered, strangely gorgeous sound.
The threat grows big on ‘Live Room’, where bursts of overwhelming interference get in the way of a manically repetitive virginal recitation, as though the mains supply was seconds away from blowing for good. It is an uncomfortable few minutes, but the noise is crunchy and beautiful too, and then angelic choral effects begin to flood the speakers and the hum of the grid blends harmoniously with the music of the spheres. ‘Live Room Out’, a coda, traces deep melancholy woodwind lines through the ether.
Elsewhere, ‘Black Refraction’, ‘Incense at Abu Ghraib’ and ‘Amps, Drugs and Harmonium’ are still and spare, stepping back to let our associations to fill the space opening up by their wide frequency effects. Perception is distorted beyond recognition, but everything becomes strangely clear as a result. ‘Stab Variation’ by contrast is deeply unsettling, the entire track sounding as though it is played in reverse as heavy beats suck at the bass cone, and synths buzz like metal saws.
Virgins is a delight, an album we did know we needed until it sprang fully-formed from Hecker‘s head. It is difficult listening, but impossible to turn off. Hecker reflects the best of early electronic Brian Eno in his mastery of music that demands attention without raising its voice.