Sunday, August 9, 2009

An Imaginary Country - Tim Hecker

An Imaginary Country

Tim Hecker
Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Walking out of Soundscapes tonight, I glanced up my favourite Annex side-street and felt its lamplights guide my eyes to a not-so-distant horizon of deep grey and black clouds. Weather reports had been promising a powerful storm all day, threatening with winds of 100km per hour and a potential tornado, and besides that, I could feel the electricity all around me, raising my hairs in anticipation. So between taking this dark road resting beneath endless century trees and taking the streetcar next to me, my choice should’ve been clear. Yet there are times I believe we’re forced to tempt danger for the sake of our curiosity, if only for a rare glimpse at something so rare and beautiful. As shadowed trees danced violently above me and flashed black under purple lightning, I began An Imaginary Country on my headphones and wandered the thunderous abyss.

Since its release this past February, critics have jumped at how Hecker’s compositions compliment his choice of title, insisting that this fluent song-cycle creates aural landscapes in uniform with the listener’s “imaginary country”. And it does – although, c’mon, that’s what quality ambient records do – on the coastal waves that resonate with Sylvain Chauveau frostiness on ‘Borderlands’ or the doom-laden overcast of ‘Paragon Point’, which builds with atonal keys that would frighten off M83. The Montreal-based artist even takes some bold steps toward accessibility on ‘Sea of Pulses’, an ambient collage affixed and propelled by some techno-ready bass loops which turns out damned near cinematic. It’s an album highlight that demonstrates Hecker’s willingness to breach his own still-life, yet it also leaves listeners breathless for another surprise… one which isn’t really on the way. Don’t kid yourself: An Imaginary Country, despite being Hecker’s most accessible work – is fraught with challenges and unfit for idyllic stargazing. ‘100 Years Ago’ and ‘200 Years Ago’, the duo which act as bookends, are confrontational pieces that suggest the chaotic unrest of tectonic plates colliding against one another, while ‘A Stop at the Chord Cascade’ literally implies the “stop”, rather than the preferred “chord cascade”, hardly moving amid a standstill of urgency. These tracks exemplify not only an ugliness in Hecker’s landscape but an enormity, and anyone who prefers an imaginary country of peace and comfort may be happier elsewhere. For me, standing beneath the recklessness of a summer storm, the soundtrack was spot-on.

About that foreboding sense of enormity, though: I find it compelling that An Imaginary Country was indeed nominated for the Polaris prize… Canada’s most prestigious award for independent music. This is an album of gorgeous solitude and uncertainty, a range that spans appropriately to the size and general doubt of Canada’s respective dimension and disposition. Whether an ambient record has an honest-to-god chance of winning the Polaris prize, I’m doubtful… but I'm proud for Tim Hecker (and Canadian electronic musicians as a whole) that An Imaginary Country was awarded a nomination of such distinction. If this album is cold, isolated and divisive at times, it’s thusly Canadian as well. I demand a recount.

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