Tim Hecker is one of the few instrumental recording artists who attracts the attention of the mainstream. We knew this album would be well-covered, so we waited to review it, hoping it would still sound just as good after half a season. It does.
To these ears, Virgins is the best album of Tim Hecker’s storied career. The artist has been recording for over a decade, long enough to have developed a signature sound. The trick here is that he shifts it. Fans will still recognize the outlines: extended drones, tonal shifts, a sense of classical development. Yet piano, organ and woodwinds nudge the album into a more developed realm, while the tension between Kara-Lis Coverdale’s church organ and Ben Frost’s electronic treatments allows it to look forward and backward like Janus.
Hecker is no stranger to collaboration, but the results have seldom been this stunning. Frost’s By the Throat is an apt comparison; like that album, this is something we hadn’t heard before and weren’t expecting. One associates the church organ with hymns, not with experimental textures (although to be fair, organists are no stranger to experimentation). In opposing fashion, one associates electronic dissonance with the new; to hear them both integrated so well is a testimony to Hecker’s brilliance. After winning a Juno award, many would be content to make the same album again; not so Hecker.
The artist calls Virgins a “theological album”, which may be interpreted in a few ways, including the literal (track titles include “Incense at Abu Ghraib” and “Stigmata”), the metaphorical (a commentary on the relationship between the traditional and the modern) and the stylistic (hints of minimalism, although the volume causes it to seem maximal). Listening can become a spiritual exercise. One is awash in tones throughout, immersed in a power greater than one’s self. Is God in these notes? As the piano keys falter in “Live Room”, does faith falter in empathy? When the synths descend, do the angels start dancing on the pin? It’s easy to ascribe weights and counter-weights to the instruments, but it may be better to hold back, to reflect upon what one doesn’t understand. If the album succeeds as a theological venture, it does so through complexity and cloud, the opposite of comprehension. Karl Barth would describe this as the “No-God”, an honest read of what is by nature undefinable. Hecker creates the desert through which the listener wanders, and thus provides the setting for a possible revelation. (Richard Allen)