If ambient music is meant to put you to sleep, if it’s supposed to blend into the air and become background noise, if it places calm and placidity over violence and disruption, then Tim Hecker is not an ambient artist. A jackhammer outside your window would be easier listening. His tracks display an incredible range of motions — they swoop, they wallop, they careen and splash, they swell sadly like an ache — but in every case they almost refuse to be swallowed. I’ve no real knowledge of Hecker the man, but Hecker the persona — the source of this music — lives largely inside a triangle of grief, rage, and terror. He swings wildly from one point to another, often without warning, the way many of us do when we feel ourselves losing ground.
In his review of Harmony in Ultraviolet, still Hecker’s most stunning symphony, the eminent journalist Mark Richardson conceptualized the album as “body music”. I think he’s right, but I also hear how it connects the mind and the body together in a particular way. During intensely emotional experiences, say, while remembering a recent, painful breakup, these two entities send signals to each other and become a feedback loop that can feel nearly paralyzing. There is almost no distinction between what the head thinks and the body experiences in these moments. Time and time again, his music nails that unmistakably human phenomenon, which is why it can feel so cathartic at the same time it’s pinning you to the bed. It understands us.
Over the years, his albums have provided a kind of musical translation to distinct human experiences. Radio Amor showcased the drama inherent in communication failure; Harmony in Ultraviolet turned the pleasure of surrender that shoegaze artists championed upside down, into something both lustful and incredibly noxious; Mirages was composed of the ephemera that occupies our dreams or that passes us by on midnight drives. Landing not long after the full-bodied An Imaginary Country, Ravedeath, 1972 emanates a curious vibe. It has many of the same sounds and instruments he relies upon — mauled pianos, organs, and guitars, mostly — but the way they’re structured within the songs and as part of the whole are new. The record seems to have no center, no shining single moment, no climax or vortex. Instead it hovers lightly but ominously, like the notes in the songs themselves, hanging in midair without ever dropping to the floor. Each time a track threatens to spill over and crash, it doesn’t. “Hatred of Music II” is all buildup, all preparation, readying us and causing us to brace ourselves…for nothing.
What is the effect of this in terms of human experience? To have tension with no release feels dissonant, even to the body. But if that tension is too obvious, it loses its oomph. And that’s why Ravedeath,1972 has the capacity to be very powerful: It’s often so subtle it’s almost frightening, and its intentions are something of a mystery. I’m not sure if it’s trying to spook me or cocoon me. I don’t know whether I’m hearing the calm before the storm or its desolate aftermath. I can’t identify whether the dominant feeling it evokes is the dread of future peril or the sadness of something that’s already made its impact. Ravedeath, 1972 is so amorphous and ungraspable this way that it ranks as Hecker’s most disorienting record, and therefore, perhaps, his scariest. Hearing those sweeping pianos and dusty chimes of “In the Fog I”, it’s as if you’re descending the staircase of a ghost-infested mansion, and you know where you are but nothing else is secure.
I’m reminded here of George Sluizer’s Dutch film The Vanishing, an abduction thriller that takes place in broad daylight and which contains not an ounce of onscreen violence. Because evil doesn’t often show itself in such bland environs, and because our imaginations know no bounds, The Vanishing scared the bejeezus out of everyone who saw it — and the American remake, a violent gorefest, was considered a joke. That’s how Ravedeath, 1972, a record without any explicit ties to horror, can sound more bone-chilling than Cannibal Corpse at their most bloodthirsty. In 50 short minutes it’s over, and it doesn’t make an indelible impression like all of Hecker’s fleshy, dramatic concoctions. Instead, it left me sitting dizzily with two questions: Where in god’s name had I just been? And could this be the first Hecker album that wants to confound us — mess us up — rather than understand us? Confusion, indeed, is the most paralyzing state of all.