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‘Instrumental Tourist’ showcases best of ambient scene

Haunting and coarse, Hecker’s latest is among his best

Published: Friday, November 30, 2012

Updated: Friday, November 30, 2012 12:11

Fractured, expansive and more than a tad lugubrious, Tim Hecker’s latest album, “Instrumental Tourist,” is a gem for anyone with a taste for the darker things in life, aurally speaking. A collaboration with fellow ambient producer Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, “Tourist” is about as varied as you can expect to get within either artists’ oeuvre. Alternating between desolate soundscapes and grating walls of noise, the album offers plenty of variety and detail. Though the sounds can stretch on for minutes upon minutes, Hecker and Lopatin offer such a nuanced, lively sonic palette that listeners will have more than enough to dig into for months to come.

The album opens chaotically with fuzz sounds quickly racing from side to side this is definitely a headphone album. “Uptown Psychedelia” sports delicately meandering synths that phase in and out as Hecker and Lopatin pipe in various electronic gobbledygook, making for a challenging, if engaging listen. The industrial grit of the opener quickly spools out into the lushly arranged “Scene from a French Zoo.”

Long, droning tones air out over a backdrop of anonymous electronic blips and bloops as Hecker and Lopatin make the sounds more and more abrasive, building to a modest climax before dropping the listener back into the same tranquil sounds that started the track.

Despite the occasionally glacial pace of the album, this album is never boring. Ideas that seem like they’re running out of steam gradually gain life as subtle, new layers are added. The real joy of “Instrumental Tourist” is how cumulatively it builds its effect, and how immersive the music can be when the album runs its full course.

As “Tourist” gets further underway, Hecker and Lopatin gradually bring in clearer vocal work. The album begins abstractly, with densely clustered sounds that bear almost no resemblance to anything one would encounter in vocal music. But soon enough, Hecker and Lopatin ease the album into more familiar territory as human voices, albeit heavily processed and obscured ones, begin to surface.

“Whole Earth Tascam” is unnerving and cathartic all at once. The female vocal samples that speckle the track shift between shifting melodies and fractured, unnatural phrases that can be pretty creepy. Even if their work can give you the jitters, Hecker and Lopatin have a knack for creating strangely hypnotic tracks that stick with you.

The second half of the album strips away most of the overt industrial sounds of its introduction, all the while retaining some of its edge. “Ritual for Consumption” gives way to florid synth melodies that never quite soothe the listener, thanks to the sporadic craziness introduced by the producers. Pinging biwa samples cut through the mix along with occasional stabs from a dissonant synth. This is not your dad’s ambient record.

Listeners to Hecker’s previous material will hardly be surprised by “Instrumental Tourist,” but the addition of Lopatin gives him a scope of sound he didn’t always have. “Harmony in Ultraviolet” (2006) may be his best work, but it lacks the exploration and risk−taking found on “Tourist.” The album misses its mark on a few occasions, like the disjointed “GRM Blue II,” but when it succeeds it does so to great effect.

Between “Instrumental Tourist” and Brian Eno’s latest, “Lux” (2012), ambient music fans will have plenty to sink their teeth into over the next few weeks. Though hardly the liveliest of music scenes, ambient music has been a pretty consistent subset of electronic music over the past four decades or so, and no one could say that musicians of the caliber of Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin are beating a dead horse.

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