Over six previous albums, Tim Hecker's ever-evolving textural and sonic palettes have been rivaled only by his compositional one. His use of acoustic instruments, synths, natural sounds, space, ambience, distortion, feedback, and a structured sense of intimacy, are juxtaposed against the unexpected. Filtered through dynamic editing processes, they alternately present the seductively serene as well as explosively turbulent. Virgins follows his three previous Kranky albums, 2006's Harmony in Ultraviolet, 2008's Imaginary Country, and 2011's Ravedeath, 1972, but markedly departs from them in consciously engaging more musical strategies (like minimalism) without formally employing them. For the first time, Hecker used live ensembles and mixed the sessions with composer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Chamber instruments, flutes, bass clarinets and other woodwinds, piano, and the "virginal," an early harpsichord that can play only a single note a time (and is therefore more percussive than either its cousin or the piano) are placed alongside, and often over, electronic sounds. The virginal plays as central a role as the piano -- check the nearly regal "Live Room," as the instrument's attributes are used sequentially and melodically before giving way to sonic disruptions of carefully constructed "noise." "Virginal I" uses multi-layered lines from the instrument, striating them incrementally, creating anxiousness in the listener. "Radiance" and "Black Refraction" offer differing sides of the beatific, as Hecker's use of the edit function allows for the unfolding of blurry abstraction of "clean" sound, with an economic use of pulse to interrupt the ecstatic drones and washes. The brief "Incense at Abu Ghraib" employs high, then siren-like pitched strings, and a pumped piano pedal that takes on so much echo it infers the sound of cavernous footsteps; it creates a sense of paranoia before giving way to "Amps Drugs, Harmonium," a less taut successor. It peels back the intrusive atmosphere to allow a more open flow, even inviting a jazzy pianistic invention. The set moves directly into hallucinatory shadow and darkness with the two-part "Stigmata Variation" before it all comes undone in the appropriately titled "Stab Variation." Here motion -- imposed, fractious, distorted -- and a minimal theme played on synths and virtual strings build to the breaking point before slowly dissolving into a sinister, breathing drone. Hecker's sound signature may still be instantly recognizable, but there is no denying that he has moved significantly farther down the path with Virgins.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek