Tim Hecker has quietly achieved cult status with his intensive studies in noise causality, in which he traces sonic paths from disturbing to enlightening. The Canadian artist’s work expects a lot from listeners, committing them to a beautiful world that marries electronic squalls with orchestral interludes. The dense distortion of his landmark record Ravedeath, 1972 presented the church organ as a grotesque instrument evoking pity and fear, while his ghostly Dropped Pianos EP sketched unsettling piano-driven vignettes, as though from the perspective of a poltergeist bent on vengeance.
On the heels of last year’s Instrumental Tourist collaboration with Daniel Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never), Hecker now returns with the paranormal Virgins. The seventh studio album released under his name, Virgins finds him at a particularly masterful place. While varied in focus, each Hecker record features drastically manipulated instruments; with this one, he causes not just instruments, but otherwise static things—spaces, echoes, shadows—to exhale and speak.
Although the title might initially convey innocence, Virgins conceptually hovers around the seductive nature of evil that coexists with the purity of goodness. Hecker achieves this careful duality by pairing disparate elements, such as a penetrating drone interrupting a delicate set of piano chords. The devastating “Live Room,” for instance, emulates the way thoughts surge accelerated through a paranoid mind, all arpeggio pianos, creaking doorways, and fabric tearing. An unsettling thump halts the gentle billowing keys in “Black Refraction,” like a stuck needle hitting phantom grooves at the end of a record.
Virgins is Hecker’s turning-point album, finding him at a place of intense contemplation amid flux. Yet he is at his finest when songs follow the laws of gravity: with a rise, arc, and subsequent fall. When pianos pluck at resonant tonalities and synths whisper at the comedown, Virgins shimmers. The record’s title tracks, “Virginal I” and “Virginal II,” swell and flatten with keys that are just out of tune, producing an effect that’s simultaneously disorienting and nostalgic, like unearthing a letter from a dead lover. Sketches such as “Live Room Out” and “Incense At Abu Ghraib,” while gorgeous, carve out more of an absence for the listener than a sense of completion.
Although never quite retreating from Hecker’s signature techniques, Virgins still finds angular ways to stun. In particular, “Prism” assails with bass-gurgling synthesizers amid its textured echoes, cries, and drones. The effect is immersive, but does it incite liberation or drowning? That’s the overarching question posed on Virgins, a sharp and perplexing record, even for Hecker. Yet it’s one that’s not as much polarizing as it is furthering a meticulous study of call-and-response ambience and the implications of noise.