Hecker’s ambient horror

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, when former Oasis member Noel Gallagher was asked about Arcade Fire’s new double album, “Reflektor,” he said, “Who has the f@#$!&% time, in 2013, to sit through 45 minutes of a single album? How arrogant are these people to think that you’ve got an hour and a half to listen to a f@#$!&% record?” While he was exaggerating, he voiced an opinion that I find myself running into a lot these days. People think that this is the age of digital downloads and that albums are slowly dying. Like he said, who listens to whole albums anymore?

Well, a lot of people, apparently. Otherwise the world of artistic electronic music wouldn’t be thriving like it is. These albums, like The Haxan Cloak’s “Excavation,” aren’t only works that demand to be listened to in their entirety, they’re very demanding to listen to, period. Many of them aren’t made to dance to or to relax to (and certainly not to sing-a-long to – often there are no vocals), but rather to be challenged by. The critics are falling hard for them and they’re certainly, by far, the most interesting works being made in the world of music.

Tim Hecker’s “Virgins” falls into this category. Casual music listeners or even pop music or indie diehards might find themselves scratching their heads. “What is this?” they might ask. They might compare it to a soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist, but it’s far too busy for that. Hecker loads his compositions with intense sounds, from disruptive, out-of-tune keyboards and cycling static, to the rare stuttering beat. It has the format of background music. It’s instrumental, ambient and there are, again, no vocals. But it’s also threatening, unsettling and constantly shifting. One might think I’m being careless with words when I say “threatening,” but with song titles like “Stigmata” and “Stab Variation,” and sometimes unyielding intensity, this intention is quickly made known.

Many critics have noted the dark aspects of the album and have used words like “ghostly” to describe elements of it, but one would be remiss to immediately make assumptions about the artist based on the mood of the music. In an interview with SPIN, Hecker said, “If someone makes brooding, introspective work, you’d assume that person is some kind of mute, pensive person reading poetry in the corner at parties or whatever … I’m the opposite. I’m pretty light in the daytime and drift through life fairly unbothered – almost like Larry David as opposed to Nosferatu.”

This might be difficult to process. Why would a positive guy make such dark work? But I don’t think that’s the most interesting question here. The main question for me is “Why is it so good?” And the answer to that, at least in part, lies in the artist’s perfectionism. Apparently, there are up to 30 different versions of many of Hecker’s compositions and there are drafts for “Virgins” that are three years old. So, he’s been working on these songs for a while and altering the ingredients until they’re just right. That’s why the piano at the end of “Prism” and the beginning of “Virginal I” is so jarring and captivating at the same time. That’s why the wavering and thumping static in “Stigmata I” is so alluring. And that’s why the cascading piano in “Black Refraction” is such a good interlude. Because he’s tried every imaginable variation until he found the most fitting one.

The last thing I expected when I picked up a record by an electronic master was to hear so many acoustics. But they work and fight wonderfully, creating an album that is as intense and rewarding an experience as any I’ve had this year.

5 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: “Virginal I.”