It was easier to sum up Tim Hecker‘s work when he was in a niche. Even though earlier releases like 2001’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again and 2006’s Harmony in Ultraviolet found the Montreal-based Hecker in full, impressive control of his sound, it wasn’t until 2011’s stunning Ravedeath, 1972 that his excellent work combined with high-profile opening gigs for bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros and reliably great word of mouth to make him the rarest of things in noise/experimental/ambient music: a breakout star. Which in context means more that plenty of people who don’t listen to most of Hecker’s contemporaries (such as Ben Frost, who assisted here and whose By the Throat is one of few recent albums that can match the visceral power of Hecker’s music) have heard or even heard of that album, rather than Hecker being in any danger of hitting the top of the charts. Which leaves him in the enviable position of having more people than ever anticipating Virgins, even as the attention he’s gotten recently means that at least some of those anticipating it have little clue what they’re in for.
Not that the author is likely to mind; Ravedeath, 1972, based largely around reworked and repurposed church organ drones, may have been noisy and enveloping in a fairly warm way, but there was certainly still an astringent, bracing air to the music, and song titles like “Hatred of Music” and “Studio Suicide, 1980” indicate both Hecker’s often mordant sense of humour as well as the core of transcendent darkness running through his work. Virgins, from the stark, Abu Ghraib-evoking assemblage on the album cover on down, is a more sonically confrontational record, more abrasive, starker and more savage. But it’s also lighter in places; Hecker is still using manipulated instruments here, but the woodwinds, piano, and synthesizers on Virgins are more often given distinct spaces to work in.
Sometimes the mix on Virgins is more separate just so those instruments can fight each other; early on the monumental “Live Room”, for example, a harried, frantic (and often Reichian) piano line is pitted against distortion that literally sounds like something being ripped apart. That noise swells to eventually wipe out the piano, slowly shifting into the gentle clarinets that bloom throughout “Live Room Out,” a respite before the piano gets the stage to itself for much of “Virginal II”. Lovers of Hecker’s masterfully vivid use of thickly layered sound can rest assured that the exultant “Radiance” and the lurching “Stigmata I” demonstrate he hasn’t lost a step there, but that almost-percussive piano keeps popping up, often insistent or terrified, or on the lovely “Black Refraction” swirled around and reflected onto itself. Hecker’s post-Ravedeath collection of demos Dropped Pianos was mostly based on the instrument and played like a spacious photo-negative of the finished work; at times, Virgins feels like the synthesis of the two.
But whereas Hecker’s other work can sometimes seem monstrous, brutal, imposing in the right frame of mind or at the right volume (even as it remains surprisingly melodic, inviting, even easy to wrap around yourself), Virgins might be the first time it actually feels like a horror movie. But whereas, for example, the Haxan Cloak’s very fine Excavation album seems like the soundtrack to something horrible happening outside of the music, the drama and conflict is rooted right inside Hecker’s work. Excavation is entirely capable of conjuring up all sorts of images in your mind while the music plays, but Virgins keeps you focused instead on what’s happening inside of it; for music with so few conventional entry points, Hecker has again managed to make his work structurally and viscerally gripping. Partly this is because the man knows his way around a grace note, whether a tiny one like the second, much gentler piano line that plays over the last five seconds of “Virginity I” only to be cut off mid-stride by “Radiance”, or a much bigger one like the mid-album, multi-part respite that culminates with the gently peaking “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium”. And he knows that the contrast is part of what gives the harsher moments here their kick, like the opening “Prism”, which sounds a bit like the crazier bits of Boredoms’ Super æ warped Inception-style chasing you down a hallway.
If that description makes “Prism” sound a bit gleeful in its assault, that points out part of what might make Hecker appealing to such a relatively big crowd. As much as a ton of work goes into his records, both sonically and conceptually, it never stops Tim Hecker records from being tremendously exciting and enjoyable, and from feeling like Hecker is enjoying himself. That’s not to say Virgins isn’t a serious, complex, often challenging work; it’s all of those things. But from the first it’s also strangely thrilling, even before the listener’s mind and ears have quite made sense of what’s going on. Ravedeath, 1972 was justly lauded and loved, but in comparison to Virgins it lacks a bit of variety and full-throttle intensity (and it’s not exactly a record I’d call laid back). Hecker deserves his recent acclaim; with this album, he deserves to attract even bigger crowds.