Powerdrone vet Tim Hecker rails against Big Ambient with his 11th album ‘No Highs’.
When post-rock was at its peak in the late-1990s and early-2000s, critics began to tire of the genre’s formulaic emotional arc. Quiet would give in to loud, and fizzle into quiet again – rinse and repeat. And when its aesthetic was borrowed by electronic music, leading to the kind of rugged “power ambient” that Tim Hecker perfected on phenomenal early releases like ‘Radio Amor’ and ‘Mirages’, the same criticism still applied. But it was Hecker’s acolytes who took it too far, using granular synthesis techniques to extend half-explored emotions into lengthy feel-good platitudes that quickly became easy fodder for use on TV, movies and advertisements. Hecker himself has built up a career as an in-demand composer, most recently penning the scores for TV miniseries ‘The North Water’ and Brandon Cronenberg’s excellent ‘Infinity Pool’.
On ‘No Highs’, Hecker surveys the popular Big Ambient sprawl and writes an angry invective decrying the corporatisation of ambient music. Honestly, we know exactly what he’s saying – who else hears more of this dross? We’ll wait – but it also feels a little like the Duffer brothers coming out against nostalgia in popular culture. The linking thread throughout the album is pulsing staccato synth bumps that split the difference between Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s ‘Stranger Things’ score. On opening track ‘Monotony’, he uses a single tone to build a rhythmic pattern that’s glazed over with eerie orchestral blasts that might be terrifying if they weren’t so familiar. It’s a sound that’s become the default cinematic language over the last decade, as streaming audiences have craved music that reflects their Spotify playlists and producers have demanded emotionally manipulative psychoacoustic tricks that hark back to a bygone era of Hollywood sleight of hand. To his credit, Hecker isn’t just good at this stuff – he helped write the playbook. But just because the music isn’t whimsical ambient fodder, doesn’t make it less formulaic.
In fact with titles like ‘Total Garbage’ and ‘Pulse Depression’, it’s hard to believe Hecker isn’t trolling us. He’s clearly and rightfully angry at the way his sound has been appropriated and (mis)used, but refuses to use that emotion to suggest a better world, he just shows us what he’s able to do with top-of-the-line synths, mics and mixing equipment – but essentially the same formula.