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Reviews: Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972

For an entirely instrumental ambient/noise album, there are plenty of thematic jumping-off points for Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972. First is the evocation of MIT’s piano drop tradition in the title of the opening track, the album’s cover art, and the year mentioned in the album title. That cover image—a photograph (of a photograph) of the first piano drop back in 1972 licensed from the MIT museum—is striking, a precarious tipping point of impending violence against a tangible musical object. Hecker has mentioned the increased sterility of the event, and having attended the wholly underwhelming 2008 event, I can vouch for his interpretation. Hecker has also mentioned his obsession with “digital garbage,” citing the Kazakh government’s bulldozing of millions of pirated CDs and DVDs. Finally, the base tracks for the album were recorded on a pipe organ in a Reykjavik church, then split apart by Hecker’s digital editing process, which circles back to the death of tangible music suggested by the album title.

I’ll give Hecker credit: by choosing his artwork carefully, picking evocative album and song titles, and dropping thematic discussion points in promotional materials and interviews, he’s provided templates for most reviews of Ravedeath, 1972. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t feel like these thematic touchstones are necessary to appreciate or discuss Ravedeath. (Nor do I wish to write another one of them.) Ravedeath is filled with natural discourses, which don’t mandate prerequisite reading for participation.

What strikes me the most about Hecker’s music is the constant sense of internal tension. There’s no sense of relief in the quieter, less abrasive moments of Ravedeath, 1972. They hint at the squalls of feedback which came before or which will come next. You may even be able to hear those moments off in the distance, as a threatening rumble beneath a placid calm. Similarly, even in the most abrasive, noise-driven moments of Ravedeath, there’s a melodic phrase or an emotional reserve pulsing beneath the bluster. Hecker comes close to resolving this tension a few times on Ravedeath, with the sub-aquatic drones of “No Drums,” the gentle feedback arcs of “Analog Paralysis, 1978,” and the processed piano coos of “In the Air III,” but those ghostly elements prevent a full exhale.

That tension extends to the instrumental palette. Some songs have a dominant instrument: opener “The Piano Drop” offers tremolo-filtered synthesizer; “In the Fog II” is built upon an oscillating pipe organ phrase; “Hatred of Music I” evokes the sci-fi noir of Blade Runner with its wailing, saxophone-esque synthesizer; and “In the Air I” suspends fragmented piano lines over buzzing noise. Yet most of these parts reappear in new forms, whether fractured, modulated, or buried. The three multi-song suites on the album excel at such instrumental give and take. The four songs appearing outside of those suites provide some relief from this haunting déjà vu, but still set the tone for what’s to come and provide their own set of double-takes.

None of this is wholly new for Hecker, whose body of work thrives on bridging gaps between genres, styles, and moods. His last LP, An Imaginary Country, dialed down the tension for more moments of unfettered beauty, while its predecessor, Harmony in Ultraviolet, offered greater contrast at both ends of the noise/ambient spectrum. 2004’s Mirages has discernable guitar tones, if not distinct parts. Hecker’s first two albums, Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again and Radio Amor show the foundations of his sound in more explicit glitch electronic. I’ve spent time with each of these records since first hearing Ravedeath, and I’ve been impressed by how much well each album stands up on its own while still informing his subsequent works. Yet my itch is to declare Ravedeath, 1972 the most accomplished of the batch.

If Hecker’s work is all driven by various forms of tension—ambient vs. noise, electronic vs. analog, glitch vs. drone—Ravedeath, 1972 presents the best balancing act between these forces. It finds the perfect moments to tip the scales in one direction or the other, but never pushes hard enough to topple the mechanism. It’s an easy album to appreciate—especially if you go ahead and consider the thematic fodder discussed at the top—but it’s also a surprisingly easy album to enjoy. I make that differentiation often, but few albums thrive equally in both modes.