In an age where audio media is increasingly sourced into the dichotomy of bangers or flops, where monoliths like Ice Spice can be called transgressive for having two hits instead of one, it’s surprising to see how much music is still able to exist beyond the walls of the corporate-consumer cutting block. One would think the rapid decline of autonomy within the industry would incite a shift toward the center, but if anything, the periphery remains more intact than ever. For some reason, Tim Hecker is the name that comes to mind when thinking about peripheral vanguards. At least within the small but passionate community of ambient/noise/drone artists and listeners, Hecker exists as an indomitable figure, so important to the community that his inclusion is more often an obvious afterthought. With a career stretching back to the early 2000s, his discography has seen drastic transformations in tone, philosophy and method. The main thread has been the consistency of the records themselves. Unlike the title of his newest album, No Highs, Hecker has rarely strayed anywhere below the top, producing several records that are considered cultural cornerstones within the genre. Despite the notoriety, his music has rarely ever wandered close to something one might consider accessible, combining both a spiritual and academic approach that allows him to make tracks/records that reference and explore ideas by German philosopher Walter Benjamin, the U.S. torture prison of Abu Ghraib and even hatred of music itself.
In regards to No Highs, Hecker finds himself returning to a funereal — even apocalyptic — ontology that embodied 2013’s Virgins. From the very outset, the opening track “Monotony” embarks on a balancing act between ponderous doom and fluttering anxiety. Hecker has made a name for himself by layering as much synth texture, organic instrumentation and static feedback with such subtle precision that it makes the listener question how much of what they are hearing is actually present versus imagined. Each piece is a palimpsest of mirages that disorients and unsettles, making it impossible not to transport whoever is engaging into the environments Hecker envisions. Often he can do this in ways that evoke unbridled transcendence. However, tracks like “Glissalia” and “Lotus Light” exercise this siren-like quality to ensnare rather than enrapture, allowing their sharp electronic textures to puncture the dour message of the album into the audience. Hecker’s brute existentialism reveals a self-imposed question: How does one fight the purgatory of life?
It’s not an easy question, nor does it ever really find its solution, but it exposes the larger architecture of the album. Much like the suspended cityscape of the album cover, nearly all of No Highs feels trapped in a state of falling, but in a reality that is incapable of deciding where to. The airy restless quality that backgrounds so much of the record indicates a sensation of the heavens crashing down on you, with no sense of when the ground is coming. And yet at the same time, the low-end drones dotting each track present a vision of the subterraneous world rising from its coffin to engulf you into its unending bottom. It seems not at all coincidental that the release of No Highs was scheduled when it was. We are now entering the time of early spring when the living world is attempting to make its presence known to everyone else. No Highs embodies this beauty of blooming, but in a way that feels more accurate to the perspective of the bloomer. For the bloomer, early spring is a time of vicious competition, of frantic survival whose beauty is only revealed once success is within sight. It’s a violence that only knows itself as nature.
What’s unbelievable is that Hecker is able to communicate this subtle variation of violence without ever grounding the music too much or abstracting itself from being understood. Therefore, with both heaven and earth seemingly crashing toward you, what are you supposed to do? The only thing that you can do — stand still. And in standing still, you get to see Hecker perform his greatest trick: Neither side ever impacts. The final track “Living Spa Water” comes in like a numb whisper, directing your eyes to the shackles you never knew you were suspended from, forcing the notion that what you thought was the ground coming toward you was just another mirage.
Hecker, more than any other artist, expresses the understanding that thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences are essentially one and the same. They come from the same palette that constructs the worlds, ineffable or otherwise, that we can inhabit. In that sense, Hecker is more akin to a painter than solely a musician — the only difference is that instead of blues and grays, he paints with layered synth and harmonium.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.