Introducing Tim Hecker’s 7th solo full-length album, and his third with record label Kranky, Virgins.
There is a persistent and obvious theme that runs through all of Hecker’s albums; loneliness. Every release tackles it in some unique and particular way, or focuses on some particular facet of isolationism, but they’re all fundamentally the same. Mirages is that cold and fearful feeling of walking home alone at night; An Imaginary Country summons up images of dreamscapes and the feeling of being trapped in a world of your own creation whilst asleep, while Ravedeath, 1972 takes a more post-apocalyptic feel, like you’re the last person left in the world. Virgins is no exception to this trend, and Hecker challenges once again the age old argument of a higher power, of the belief or lack thereof of a higher power.
Putting down in words the incredibly seamless and not to mention emotional and conceptual ideas thrown out by this album is a challenge to say the least; even brief opener “Prism” doesnt make it easy on us. It rears up on smeared and pitch-shifted pulses of cycling drone, like a slowly rotating prism bending and splitting the incoming light as it refracts. It morphs quickly into the more obvious piano sequences of “Virginal I”, one of two tracks in a broken suite. The piano is cold, crystalline and harsh in its attack, being hammered quickly and sharply and not to mention interwoven in a syncopated and convoluted manner. Slowly it rises up, a confused and texturally complex flurry of overlapping drones and faltering organ blats tripping over one another before it fades away to a dark and minimalist finalé filled with static washes and unsure drone clips. It’s something that could have been lifted right out of Ravedeath but it’s much more harsh and unforgiving that the comparatively more resigned and gentle ambiance we saw there. This is much more menacing and cruel.
It slips somewhat uncomfortably into the much more innocently titled “Radiance”, and it is aptly titled. Washes of thin, light drones encircle us in a comforting yet not reassuring haze, their bleary tones and electronic tinkles not inspiring confidence and emanating a feeling of hiding another agenda. Juxtaposed against “Live Room” I think it’s clear what Hecker is trying to put across; don’t be fooled by religion. Love and morality may be things they preach but there are unethical and uncivilised undercurrents with them all, actions supposedly defended by God. Reality crashes through in a series of grinding electronic pulses, noncommittal piano and glitch spasms of unknown origin disturbing the peace and sending eddies through the otherwise placid surface of “Radiance”‘s previous drone. But there is a sense of resignation throughout, knowledge that the problems are not so easily removed. At 7 minutes it’s the longest piece of the album, and it’s worth every single second, even when it slips imperceptibly into followup track “Live Room Out”, with its sad, melancholic drone fugue.
Pre-release single “Virginal II” finally makes an appearance to give some propulsion back to the mid-album after the rather quiet previous affairs, with its compelling and determined pianos fighting back at last. At first they seem disharmonious, awkward and unsynced but they merge quickly and club together in a repetitive but compelling first half, picking up allies in a swelling background organ drone before heading straight into a brick wall of noise swells and manipulated, strobing piano thrown right back, the later synths coming in like a Harmony in Ultraviolet throwback. Fear of retribution and the same arguments of “faith” get tossed back and negate all of the clear and undeniable logic of the original piano here, and “Black Refraction” comes back to reassure one’s self, on both sides, of the clarity and surety of their own argument in self-reflection with delicate, somewhat distal and slightly low-fidelity minimal piano.
The repercussions of such ideological warfare are felt in the dangerously titled “Incense at Abu Ghraib”, which was of course the centre of controversy due to torture and execution of Iraqi’s by American soldier’s in the early 2000’s . This reflection doesn’t last long, a brief but heartfelt reminder of the atrocities committed by both sides during war, echoed by Hecker with thin wavering drones, a menacing sub-bass and the distal sound of drums. The emotional impact upon Hecker himself is possibly brought to the surface in proceeding “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium” as it tries hard to strike a more upbeat and optimistic line despite what he knows and what came before it, terminating abruptly at the end as the facade is dropped.
Perhaps the strongest couplet of the album is the Stigmata suite in the album’s fading moments; “Stigmata I” relies on the cyclic manipulation of oscillating piano riffs to the tune of mild glitch and then ploughs head first into what is perhaps one of the best tracks of the album “Stigmata II”, choosing a more electronic synth line with a much more introspective vibe, warbling and occasionally glitching its slow and considerate way along. It sounds tired and even when that distinctive Hecker drone reappears it feels slow, restrained and half-hearted. It’s stunning but it’s not quite the end, we have one last hurrah in the much bigger closing track “Stab Variation”. The clash of theism and atheism, of cultures, of ideologies, it’s never over, no matter how tired either side is of the eternal fighting and desire for closure. Shards of piercing, grating noise rush through the thudding and wailing melodies as old wounds are opened up in fresh bouts, the very fabric of the music is frosty and crystalline in the shimmering electronica separating the gulfs in opinion.
I’m not religious; I’m not opposed to the idea of God and the need that some people have for a faith, for a higher power, to feel safe and believe they have a purpose in this vast Universe, but I do oppose the rules and conventions faith imposes upon its followers. This is the line I think this album takes, the fight not between believers and non-believers, but that of those hungering for equality and civility against religious believers who continue to support the out-dated and out-moded rules set down by their texts. Virgins is every bit as tired as those who fight the good fight and argue on the side of humanity and reason, and those who tirelessly defend their faith. What remains unanswered is: who is right?