If there’s one thing that characterises Tim Hecker’s music, it’s a spirit of dichotomy, sitting comfortably betwixt smooth, rounded ambient edges and jagged points of noise. Ravedeath, 1972 continues that dichotomy, and embodies another one, combining the effervescent caprice of live improvisation with the cool consideration subsequently brought to bear on it in the studio.
From the outset, this album makes it clear that noise is going to be the order of the day. First track ‘The Piano Drop’ – presumably named for the curious event on the cover – unveils material pushed into overload, although it’s neither harsh nor forbidding, bludgeoning the ears with all the force of a pillow fight. Its spinning surface quickly erodes away due to its own constriction into a more shimmering, pulsating kind of object, that seems to fade rather too quickly (i could happily have listened to this develop for a lot longer).
Hecker includes two triptychs on the album, the first of which, ‘In the Fog’, is the only point where field recordings feature in a demonstrably recognisable way, its chugging boat sounds (which act as book-ends to the triptych) establishing a palpable sense of voyage. ‘Fog’ is certainly an appropriate word for what that voyage comprises, its delicate opening quickly attracting more and more layers around it, including a prominently heard piano. Hecker’s fog is fascinating, with an ever-shifting density that occasionally affords glimpses far into the distance. The sound of a pipe organ – the recording took place in an Icelandic church – protrudes abruptly through the central panel, placing chords that are caught up in incessant loops, accumulating more layers of dirt. Although they form a crust, it’s ultimately shrugged off by the power of the organ pedals, which force their way into the foreground; at the end, it doesn’t so much fade as – appropriate for a fog – dissipate, returning to the boat from whence it began.
These first few tracks have packed a real punch, captivating and engrossing, conveying their ideas – despite the obfuscation that cakes them – with vivid clarity. But that can’t be said for everything on Ravedeath, 1972. Originating as it does in a day of improvisation, there are times when the music lacks a distinct idea, becoming all about texture, and there’s a concomitant tendency to find one’s attention mirroring the music’s lack of focus. Yet equally there are times when it’s precisely this kind of sonic obstinacy that pays the richest dividends.
This is especially the case at the album’s epicentre, the two-part ‘Hatred of Music’, that spends its first half developing into a stubborn, slightly shrill music from a sonar-like tonic (echoes of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’). Bass is more or less absent, but it positively overflows with richness nonetheless, and as it passes into its second part, this reluctance to do very much and the emphasis on upper registers is revealed to be the overture to something more potent. It’s a breathtaking moment, the deep bass of the pedals obtruding massively through the now heavily-withdrawn texture, a barely-moving, ponderous figuration that dominates our vision for minutes on end, surrounded on all sides by the remains of earlier material, licking its edges like small flames.
It’s impossible to listen to this album without finding oneself drawn into the cover imagery and the titles Hecker has bestowed on the tracks. The album’s cover – portraying an upright piano, poised to be thrown from a roof – is simultaneously violent and playful, and here at the album’s heart, Hecker draws on words evoking strong, violent notions: ‘hatred’, ‘paralysis’, ‘suicide’. It has to be said, though, that these notions confine themselves to the conceptual aspect of the album (spoken of in the press release, which doesn’t so much prove illuminating as actually come across like a red herring – another example of violence and playfulness combined?). ‘Analog Paralysis, 1978’ is, if anything, less paralytic than either earlier track ‘No Drums’ – which seems to strive at being transfixed, but falls just a little short of that – or indeed ‘Studio Suicide, 1980’ which follows, and is precisely the kind of track I spoke of before, where one’s inclined to drift (but not nod) off.
Despite weaker episodes like these, Hecker reasserts himself admirably in the album’s closing triptych, a counterpart to its predecessor, this time ‘In the Air’. Its disarmingly simple opening becomes heavily industrialised, as though the sound elements were being progressively pulverised from behind. The piano returns, but the arbitrary collection of diatonic trifles that it proffers are quickly subsumed by some of the most dense layers of noise heard on the album. Ultimately, though, the organ and everything else is pushed to the periphery and beyond, the piano taking centre-stage, its single idea slowly revolving and reverberating out of sight.
While not without its flaws, Ravedeath, 1972 is Tim Hecker’s strongest, most consistent album to date. Admittedly, for some it will be a challenging listen – lacking the quietude heard on Harmony in Ultraviolet and with more intensity and ambition than An Imaginary Country – but, at its best, the rewards for rising to that challenge are nothing less than mind-blowing.
(This article was originally published on Fluid Radio.)