In the large spectrum of dark, ambient electronic music released in 2013, it was hard to believe that anything would top The Haxan Cloak’s monumental Excavation. And in the spectrum of Tim Hecker’s impressively prolific career, it was hard to believe that he could top 2011’s career highlight Ravedeath, 1972.
Tim Hecker has destroyed both of those milestones. With his new record Virgins, Hecker soundtracks an emotional journey from bleak hopelessness to hope, all in the span of what seems like a very short 50 minutes. While Ravedeath, 1972 was at times downright scary, Virgins is hauntingly gorgeous.
The album begins with what sounds like strings but is really just a long held and virtually unidentifiable note crumbling into captivating noise. The track, called Prism, is an effective introduction to Hecker’s droney world, one that’s not as uncomfortably captive as that of Ravedeath, 1972. But don’t mistake the music on Virgins as entirely free. Virgins is essentially a Truman Show dome to Ravedeath’s jail cell, as Hecker is still the ultimate puppeteer, in control of all of the sweeping sounds he creates.
In fact, Hecker created Virgins with the help of the orchestral musicians associated with Bedroom Community (which includes the likes of Nico Muhly and Ben Frost). On the album, he’s like the conductor of this all-star orchestra, as the piano chimes on both Prism and Virginal I exemplify Virgins as a comparatively instrumental release when taking into account the insular recording process of Ravedeath, 1972. And Hecker now proves that he can be a master of old world instruments as much as he is of new world mixing techniques.
More importantly, on Virgins, Hecker displays such an incredible ability to stir emotions from his instruments that you almost even forget about the fear that Ravedeath, 1972 induced only two years prior to Virgins’ release. Radiance, Virgins’ third track, is stunningly sad but not quite melodramatic; Hecker’s twists and turns prevent the track from becoming pure, unbridled emotion. The same goes for the stark Live Room, whose ghostly pianos are effectively complemented by William Basinski-like glitches, evoking images of a broken old filmstrip of a passed loved one.
Virginal II all but renders moot the condescending “horror movie soundtrack” rhetoric that has centered around Virgins. Essentially the album’s centrepiece, Virginal II seems like an amalgam of the album’s first-half tracks, and its minimal piano chimes, wavering synthesisers and orchestral swells combine to make something way more emotionally complex than any given horror movie soundtrack. But it couldn’t really soundtrack any movie, let alone a horror movie. It exists not to scare, nor to be associated with any other sort of stimuli. The song best exists free of context with room to breathe on its own.
Virginal II even later allows room for songs that do have political context or evocative titles: for the former, Incense At Abu Ghraib, and for the latter, Black Refraction, Amps, Drugs, Harmonium, Stigmatas I and II, and Stab Variation. Still, Virgins’ context, political or not, isn’t meant to be as recognisable as, say, the bomb sounds of Matthew Herbert’s The End Of Silence. That is, while the notes of Incense At Abu Ghraib certainly resemble faint screams, for someone who may just happen to hear the music free of context, the subject of torture might not be his or her first guess in regards to what the song’s about. It’s this relatability that’s so impressive about Virgins. While the album is unmistakably Hecker’s vision, it’s the listener’s experience.