[29 November 2012]
Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin are, for the moment, essentially the Big Names of the current ambient drone scene. Hecker has seen his star rise in recent years with the releases of Harmony in Ultraviolet and Ravedeath, 1972, albums which found Hecker creating suites of electronic drone that drift through each other until seemingly endless clouds of noise and static create a sense of both epiphany and dread. At his best, the most cathartic moments of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Silver Mt. Zion record come to mind. Meanwhile, Lopatin (perhaps better known by his stage name Oneohtrix Point Never) has made his name on combining ambient with more krautrock-like influences, blending drone with more rhythmic instrumentation that ever so consciously flirts with turning the style into pop music without diving over the edge. The two have come together for Imaginary Tourist to find out what would happen if Lopatin attempted to have the same affect on Hecker’s music, all on a conceit that they’d like to free a variety of “world music” synth presets from the clichés the pair feel they’ve become trapped in.
It’s a little hard to achieve that second goal when the resulting music sounds so much like a straight up blend of what the two were already doing, though. Not that this is an inherently bad thing. It’s just sometimes the pieces don’t completely add up, or find ways to distinguish themselves much from what’s already come before on the same album. “Intrusions” is a great example of this, a track that sounds great when you’re a six-pack deep into musical hyperbole with a friend, but to more sober minds feels more like a second attempt at “Uptown Psychedelia” that using opening and closing moments of pure dissonance to mask the issue. And “Whole Earth Tascam” plods through a vacant, Gothic atmosphere that doesn’t make much of an argument other than it can be fun to improvise with buttons and repetition among friends. It’s a track that feels fine as it winds into its final third, but at five minutes feels both too long to be enjoyable and too short to really find an affecting message for its emptiness.
When the duo are in strong lockstep with each other, however, it’s hard to feel let down with Imaginary Tourist. The album opens entrancingly, with “Uptown Psychedelia” and “Vaccination (For Thomas Mann)” standing out as clearly demarcated collaborations that allow fans of either artist to sink into their couches together and attempt to point out which is doing what any any given time. “Racist Drone” and “Grey Geisha” inspire similar levels of giddiness, drones colliding with improvised synths to create a sense of heavenly ascent stunted by gravity. Unfortunately, you’ve got to slog through “GRM Blue” I and II to get there; the former is a very brief demo that shows lots of promise before the latter comes through and acts like ripping all the fun bits out of a Nobuo Uematsu composition and then just standing there in the rubble for six minutes is a good time. Without the alien conversation of “Racist Drone” to pull the album out of the muck with its steel drums, drone moans and seaside bird play, Instrumental Tourist threatens at many times to feel like a slightly dull, melodramatic counteroffer to Brian Eno’s Ambient 4.
Given the right setting and mindset, your first few trips or vacations with Hecker and Lopatin can prove immensely enjoyable. What lies at the core of their approaches is just that appealing and mind-melting. But as familiarity begins to settle in, Instrumental Tourist can quickly feel like an experience of diminishing returns, as I began to pick out all my favorite bits and wait anxiously for those as the waves I had to surf to get there and back became more and more of a sort of test. My most favorite bit no doubt being “Ritual for Consumption”, which feels something like an attack on Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” and is all the more engrossing for it. As an experimental rumination on what these two might be capable of should they collaborate further in the future, Instrumental Tourist is an exciting experience for fans of either artist, let alone both. But it’s also an experience that feels marked with impermanence, with a few jams that have great potential to stick with you through the years while the majority of it just becomes blissful ephemera. Something you know exists, and that’s enough to satisfy without rejoining the experience.