As music fans in the contemporary world, we have a front row seat to the multifaceted process of musical genres melting, imploding, and deconstructing themselves right before our very ears. The reasons for this hybridizing free-for-all are varied. Part of the reason is the immense proliferation of inexpensive music making technologies that would have been restricted to high-end studies in years gone by, or simply did not exist 20 years ago. Another reason, and I am sorry if this offends physical text purists, is the widespread use of torrents, file sharing, and streaming in the 21st century that gave experimental music a vast, international audience it never had before. One thing is for sure: up in Iceland, Tim Hecker and his accomplice Ben Frost are cooking up some of the most striking, beautiful, and genre-defying music of our time.
Hecker’s previous LP Virgins was a fascinating, hypnotic piece of work that infused traditional instruments with electronic and experimental techniques seamlessly. Virgins was very pretty and did not attack the listener with many moments of overt harshness or overwhelming chaos. Hecker’s live performances, on the other hand, are overwhelming. With a top-notch sound system working for him, Hecker is able to drown his live audience in sound in a way that is simply devastating. Until now, Hecker’s recorded work had not quite reached the ecstatic, down-the-rabbit-hole intensity of his live sets. With Love Streams, Hecker has finally figured out a way to completely rip his audience’s guts out, even without the benefit of a spleen rattling sound system backing him up.
Love Streams continues to do what Hecker does best: mix familiar, traditional musical elements with totally alien sounds that are probably whispered to him by Icelandic elves in the deepest depths of sleep. One of Hecker’s most powerful tools here is so simple that it is ingenious: the human voice. Hecker brought in the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and the formidable Jóhann Jóhannsson to give Love Streams that crucial human element that is so central to his work. The singing that echoes in and out of tracks like “Music in the Air” and “Castrati Stack” is so gorgeous and haunting that it makes me want to throw up and cry at the same time. Love Streams is the sound of a brilliant, fearless musician realizing his full potential for the first time.
Until now, Ben Frost’s recorded output has somewhat outshone Hecker’s. Love Streams changes that dynamic, proving that Hecker can speak in a voice very much his own and match the very finest moments in Frost’s work. The two of them seem to be creating their own genre up there in Reykjavik, although it is so formless and iconoclastic that it is really more of an anti-genre. Terms like ambient, experimental, noise, or anything else you might want to lay on them, don’t do them justice or prepare the listener for the emotional power of their music.
Love Streams cannot be taken in on one listen, or two, or 60; it is one of those records that just goes on and on, offering the listener new moments of epiphany with every replay. Love Streams shifts from moment of hierophantic loveliness to modes of sadness and menace so flawlessly that apparently contradictory emotions counterbalance and fuse. It makes perfect sense that Love Streams is Hecker’s first record with label 4AD, as it sort of sounds like the Cocteau Twins if they decided to live inside a glacier, communing with Old Norse land spirits and subsisting exclusively on psychedelic mushrooms. Love Streams is at once familiar and totally alien; a work of art that reminds us why we need art in the first place.