Tuesday, April 19, 2016

album review: 'love streams' by tim hecker

I've talked before at length how I'm still working to explore electronic music, still trying to find the clearest inroad to a genre that can frequently be beautiful and powerful and experimental, but often can be just as hard to talk about or fully dissect. And today, it's time we talk about one of the subsets of electronic music that remains some of the hardest to decode and explain: ambient drone and noise. The sort of sounds that will nearly all but the most dedicated of listeners branding it as background noise or completely empty to just walk away, it's long been a genre to which I've touched in passing but have had a certain aversion to it. I can definitely appreciate ambient music and atmosphere, but stretched across glitched out soundscapes with only the slightest of change-ups in melody or the sparsest of beats... yeah, most of the time it's just not for me. I like groove and composition more than textured sonic tapestries that often rely on the thinnest of context of define what it might be trying to say. 

As such, delving into the extensive back catalog of Canadian electronic artist Tim Hecker has been quite the experience for me, most notably because it probably came the closest to create soundscapes that were enticing enough to keep me coming back for more. The missed connections and fragmented transmissions of Radio Amor, the darker, guitar-feedback-soaked Mirages that started touching into black metal textures, the more soothing but melancholic Harmony In Ultraviolet that grew all the more expansive, the more dense construction of An Imaginary Country, they all reflected so much more than what the first few listens would imply. This would reach a peak on Hecker's 2011 album Ravedeath 1972, a titantic, borderline apocalyptic record that I would have no qualms saying is legitimately great, and while I didn't quite like his 2013 record Virgins as much - I missed the thicker atmosphere, even if the greater, more intimate focus on melody with much cleaner textures made it a potent listen in and of itself - I think I understood enough to delve into his newest record Love Streams, which had been garnering something of a mixed critical response. So as a relative newcomer to this sort of music, how did it click?

Man, it's been a while since I've covered a record that frustrates me this much, a record that simultaneously I get the feelings I should like both more and less than I actually do. On the one hand, it's following in the trends of what I didn't like about Virgins and is easily one of Tim Hecker's least atmospheric and cohesive records - and yet even despite the dissonance and the moments that should push me away, I don't hate or even dislike this album, and it's been an oddly perplexing record to revisit. 

And to explain that... okay, like all instrumental records, this is going to be tricky to articulate, especially one as openly abstract as this one is... but then again, I'd argue that this record has more defined textures than many of Hecker's previous records, following in the trend of Virgins to strip back even more of the layers of smoky atmosphere to expose the glossy, glassy synths, bass clarinet, subtle thrumming beats, and the occasional twisted guitar line beneath it all. And more than that, Tim Hecker has opted to blend in vocal elements as well - and when I say that, I mean much in the way vocals have shown up on Tim Hecker records before, chopped into fragments of sound that blur together into an mass of amorphous sound where individuality slips away.

And of course, that's the point. Hecker has cited that he drew inspiration from 'liturgical elements', the unification of many voices to become one, and yet he also stated that the record was intended to reflect 'the ubiquity and nihilism of streaming of all forms of life'. And oddly, that makes a certain amount of sense: when you can see or hear everything at any time, it makes sense that it all would start to run together, raising the question of how much any of it mattered, with only the most defined fragments standing out of the murk. Hell, it even operates as an easy explanation for the lack of cohesion: when everything is laid out as an option, the order or flow in which it's experienced often becomes perfunctory. So you can have tracks, for example, like the faded glassy flutters on 'Obsidian Counterpoint' that touch against the pan flutes that are then split by hollow clatters and a low bassy thrum before submerging into a cushion of static. Or the outro moments on 'Music Of The Air' and 'Violet Monumental I' with the fragmented guitar and piano alike. Crescendo moments are highlighted as the mix gets more cacophonous and distorted before left hanging open, stacks on the verge of collapse before a sudden shift away, the most notable for me coming on 'Castrati Stack' with the blasts of speakers-warping static that still created an odd sort of beauty in the pile-up of sounds, or on 'Collapse Sonata', where the bright glossy synths begin to collapse until they start to ride the wave of hollow beats... and then the mix drops away entirely into a hollow echoing deepness, leaving the remaining synths to blare offkey before 'Black Phase' bundles them into a darker, smoldering funereal picture.

And yet for as much as I can tolerate the melodies that swell and ebb off rhythm with hollow, glassy tones, or the vocals that alternate between too close for comfort and not nearly as melodic or well-blended as they're trying to be, or the beats that always seem to be straining at the edge for more of a chance to really burst free, after multiple listens I'm left feeling there's more of a tease than payoff here. I've seen comparisons made between this record and Anna Meredith's star-making debut Varmints from earlier this year, but Meredith was willing to let her intricate crescendos and compositions explode. Hecker is more impressionistic with his pieces - which would be fine if so much of the atmosphere and flow didn't feel compromised, always on the precipice of collapsing and never quite tilting over. And while I came to find the odd beauty of tracks like 'Voice Crack' or the dreamy, Arca-like flutter of 'Bijie Dream' or the warping fidelity of 'Live Leak Instrumental' or the simmering ghostly glitch of 'Black Phase' - the progression feels misshapen and 'off'. And while I get the thematic reasoning why, I also get the impression there could have been a way to execute this that didn't leave this album feeling such a lack of payoff, with tracks fading out when the ideas or layers run short.

So considering Love Streams as a whole... again, it's a record that leaves me frustrated in more ways than one, partially with the lack of payoff but even more because there are moments that make me with I could like this more. I'm not wild about peeling away so much of the fuzzed-out atmosphere that made albums like Ravedeath 1972 so compelling, but there are gorgeous. moments where the marriage of disparate textures came together. And while these are fragments in isolation on a record that never lets them blossom or flow or swell, they're good enough to keep drawing me back. In other words, while I think I get what Hecker was looking to do with Love Streams, I think my journey into this type of experimental electronic music has returned to its original conclusion: I can appreciate it, which is why it's getting a 6/10, but it's just not for me, at least on this record. If you're up for a challenging listen, I recommend you check this out, but both Ravedeath, 1972 and Virgins hit harder, so I'd pick those first.

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