Tim Hecker - Virgins | Album Review | By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel

Tim Hecker


Hecker’s venture into the unknown.

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Author: on October 14, 2013
October 14th, 2013

Tim Hecker makes music. That’s the distilled purity that describes him best. Sure, it wouldn’t be wrong to describe his workings as ambient, largely-beatless pieces that stretch atmospheric soundscapes into maps that can elevate listeners to a heightened, emotionally-striking plateau. Indeed, that is what Hecker does – the thing is, he is not bound to such formulaic ways, be it on his own behest or that of another. He simply makes music, makes the music he wants to make. It’s this brave and dedicated attitude he shows as he works to masterfully curate concepts that has solidified him as one of the most successful ambient artists in this time. Hecker also looks set to become the busiest: His seminal Ravedeath, 1972 effort garnered appreciation throughout 2011 and in the year between then and now he produced an LP with Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never). It is unfair to assume this implies a rushed approach to Hecker’s releases, as, according to co-eingineer Ben Frost, he’s been sitting on many versions of tracks from Virgins for up to three years. The themes on Virgins and Ravedeath, 1972 differ, but it’s their execution that is polarising and intriguing; Ravedeath had a grand, perhaps cinematic narrative while Virgins is anxious, personal and more convoluted. If it is assumed Hecker had both of these projects on the go, some years ago, then it goes along way in showcasing versatility and originality in his ideas.

Virgins is an impressive album and more — it’s imposing, even oppressive. It opens with a barrage of sharpened crystal shards that brutishly force their way into the brain, leaving a tinnitus-like aftermath of reprises. While the feeling of uncertain, unnameable threat is ever-present on the record, it’s not always as aggressive and explicit as “Prism”. Both “Virginal” movements head down the path of curiosity rather than punishment, as heard on the eerie closer, “Stab Variation” — here, confusion transforms into a painful process of realisation, never reaching any clear conclusion.

This album marks the first time Hecker has used recordings of ensembles’ live performances, and naturally the first thing that jumps to mind is an attempt to add another dimension to that elusive yet cliché human element. The logic flows in tandem with the direction the album can take; Virgins is prone to losing its own rhythm as comfort zones are deviated from as much as possible. Piano stumbles onwards during “Virginal I”, never quite finding its feet but always moving until it’s stripped back to leave rough and rustic woodwind. The devolution is organic and honest, akin to the progression of “Amps, Drugs and Harmonies”, a track that I find slightly falters in its identity, existing as an extension of “Incense at Abu Ghraib”. The title of the aforementioned piece is the biggest signifier of the album’s theme, bar the artwork that harkens back to imagery of the tortured and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. “Incense” is perhaps the humblest of tracks on the LP, as well as one that represents the plights hinted at by way of sonic isolation. The minimal approach attempts to recreate the calm obtainable from the unknown, while offering the occasional petrifying glimpse of malice present in the hidden, hostile surroundings. A feeling of over-compression, of being trapped, works in the moment, but unfortunately it doesn’t do the likes of “Radiance” any favours.

Hecker has married some of his more delicate, nimble techniques to the record alongside the chaotic. Virgins’ most poignant section appears in the form of “Black Refraction”. Ambling and pensive, the Sunday piano is buoyed by a soft shuffle as freer progressions are weaved in the background. Eventually, these movements follow jazzy intuition and wander their way towards centre-stage, until the shuffle becomes a signal to end meditative introspection. The other pick on the album would be “Live Room” and its successor, during which wonky piano is thrown amidst a cacophony of de-fragmentation. It’s as if snippets from parallel worlds pierce the veil for the briefest moment, building into something dramatic enough for heavy-handed choral vocals. The fallout is cleansing, almost whimsical, but “Virginal II” returns to haunt.

Hecker has done a good job of pacing the album; it’s an intense listen already, but one could only imagine increased listener alienation if the yin-leaning moments were not placed at such effective intervals. An awful lot of care has gone in to precisely producing this selection of works — it’s potentially too much, but criticising Hecker for getting too involved, too carried away and too invested with his own works is an argument that barely stands against such a vastly enchanting record, as well as one in which he has taken the time to explore new avenues for igniting experiences and feelings. This foray into the unknown is what solidifies and strengthens Virgins, moving it from being something expectedly great into something that is unexpectedly great. As to where Hecker might venture towards next is anybody’s guess, though after Virgins, it seems as if anything is possible.

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