|Tim Hecker - "Suffocation Raga for John Cale" off Extra Playful: Transitions EP|
Double Six, 2012
It's no secret that Tim Hecker is a big favourite of mine. Though he's yet to put out a bad album--seriously, his hit to miss ratio is astonishing--last year did feel like something of a halcyon days for his fans, with both Ravedeath, 1972 and Dropped Pianos offering some of his most rewarding, and challenging, music yet (to say nothing of this excellent concert set from Moogfest 2011 that NPR put up). This remix for Cale's Record Store Day release (Actress and Leyland Kirby have remixes on it as well) is a bit of a departure from most of the material on Ravedeath (outside of maybe "In the Fog"), though it fits comfortably alongside earlier works like "Atlas One" and "Atlas Two," or the noisier parts of Harmony in Ultraviolet. His usual signifiers--grainy distortion, clouds of static, submerged harmonic progressions--are all present, and in just the right amounts. If you were being uncharitable, you could say it's Hecker-by-the-numbers, but it's such a gorgeous piece of music that I'm inclined to give him a pass for not exactly moving outside his comfort zone here. In something of a strange twist, actually, "Suffocation Raga" sounds closer to Christian Fennesz's work than has been the case in some time, and the overtly pretty second half is not a million miles away from the likes of Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis.
Opening with a metallic, buzzing drone--sounding a little like stretched out piano chords--before the layers of static and distortion shift the sound into slightly darker territory, the first half of the song is a feast of textures. Indeed, nothing here is nebulous or gossamer; Hecker gets so much of his effect from the physicality of his music, and this is no exception. There is weight and mass here, and it feels like you can reach out and touch what's coming out of your speakers. A little over halfway through, the track seems poised to drop into "Whitecaps of White Noise"-levels of distortion and static, but Hecker pulls back and allows everything to blossom in near-symphonic fashion. It's a little like hearing a deconstructed horn section, the swells of sound sitting somewhere between triumphant and melancholic. Piano creeps in around the edges at the close of the track, a trick used to great effect on Ravedeath, and the most obvious reference to Hecker's recent work to be found.
In an interview for The Quietus, Hecker describes his method in the studio as:
a mix of dull, bludgeoning, plodding, getting-nowhere feelings of hitting your head against the well, mixed with these amazingly crystallized moments of epiphany and revelation and vision. . . . [I]t's something that really comes with hard work and labour and time and patience, and being open to your music spiraling off on different tangents and going with it, and not being sentimental about music that's not quite there. Just destroying it.At this point, reference to the sound of this process in Hecker's work is perhaps the most pervasive cliche in writing on his music, so I will gloss over how well this description of his methods matches with the experience of listening to that work (it really does!) and suggest that if there's been a development in Hecker's career, it has been a continued refinement and honing in on those moments of epiphany, revelation, and vision he describes. Aesthetically, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do it Again is not a million miles away from "Suffocation Raga," but the payoff, for lack of a better term, is consistently higher these days. This is not to say that his earlier releases suffer by comparison--they remain compelling listens even in light of his recent triumphs--so much as to point out that the richness of the material, the depth of his compositions, has grown without Hecker having to abandon what's brought him to this point. "Suffocation Raga," then, is more consolidation than evolution, a revisiting of gains made through the application of those very gains.
In that same piece from The Quietus quoted above, the interviewer describes a preview of some of Hecker's most recent recording sessions, noting that it's "more rhythmic than I was anticipating, but blossoms with the unmistakable flourishes of dense and percolating distortion that have become his hallmark." This description might be applied to last year's "The Piano Drop" (or even Harmony in Ultraviolet's "Chimeras"), and I can't help but wonder if an increased engagement with his minimal techno past (under the Jetone moniker) might be in the cards. I don't know, obviously, and if Hecker's career to date offers any hints, it suggests that what comes next will be more slow refinement, rather than scorched-earth reinvention. Regardless of what's to come, Hecker remains one of the greats in contemporary experimental music and any forthcoming projects will, I'm sure, be worthy of exploration and immersion. For right now, "Suffocation Raga for John Cale" is another piece of typically excellent work from a musician who, like Burial or the Caretaker, has excelled by becoming ever more like himself.