At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, most commonly known as MIT, a tradition occurs on one of the campus’s houses, the Baker house. Since 1972 and occurring irregularly, a grand piano is dropped from the roof of the building, falling six stories until landing on the ground with a big thump. Some call the tradition an insult towards the art of music and music education, whereas others just take it as a fun event (I don’t know if physics are studied at MIT, but if so, then some could take the piano drop simply as a physics experiment, demonstrating what happens to 500 or 600 pound objects that fall from a building six stories high). Now for the real question: does the piano make music or sound any notes at all when it hits the ground? Or does it simply crash, making the sound of the non-musical crash the real music? It’s hard to say.
Strange as this prologue on MIT’s piano drop ceremony is for this review, it is nevertheless very important on Tim Hecker’s new release, “Ravedeath, 1972”. The cover art shows an image from the first piano drop back in 1972, and the track titles such as “In the Fog”, “The Piano Drop”, and “In the Air” seem to hint at the same event. No one knows quite yet what “Ravedeath” seems to mean, so I’ll leave that up to everyone else to interpret. The music itself even seems to portray the falling piano, slowing out its death from what would be a few seconds to around 53 minutes long.
Tim Hecker is a Canadian electronic musician and sound artist who, at this point, creates ambient music that is much different than your typical drones and pads. Sure, these elements are there, but what is radically different is that Tim uses digital sound processing to convert the soothing textures into fractured glitches and blips. Even from the first track, “The Piano Drop”, you can hear the noise and distortion right from the beginning, with drones and pads that have been converted into rhythmic glitches. The album was recorded in a church in Iceland, along with Australian-born Iceland-based musician Ben Frost, who had performed some of the more noisier Swans-like textures on the album, as well as had engineered it. Also, James Plotkin, who had performed with Scorn and remixed tracks by Isis, Earth, and Sunn O))), had mastered this album as well. So, essentially, you have some of the best artists in the forefront of noise/ambient music contributing to Tim’s vision in some way on this album. The result is unlike anything that has come out in the past few years.
Pianos, glitch ambience, and digital noise all play an integral part on the record, calling back the style that Tim had pioneered on his 2001 album, “Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again”. Many reviews cite Tim’s work as cathedral electronic music and structured ambient, and pretty much, that is the only way to describe it. It’s very easy to say about how Tim can interfere with the flow of the ambient pads by adding in static or noise, or perhaps just going one step further to split up the pads into different fragments, but what is really difficult to say is how the music will affect people. Obviously, cathedral electronic music is probably the best description, because as noisy as the album is, the ambience is very wide, with the sounds seeming to bounce off of the walls just like a cathedral does. It can be a very relaxing environment that, at first listen, sounds like harsh noise or dissonance, but as this gapless album goes on, the sounds of noise and beautiful ambient pads start to merge together so flawlessly that it can be hard to discern the two elements. What does this mean for the listener? The album will probably be tough to grasp fully at first, but by letting the soundscapes take you away, you start to immerse yourself into a very relaxing environment that has very few obvious cuts or interferences in the sound.
Overall, I had been looking forward to Tim Hecker’s “Ravedeath, 1972” for a long while after being a fan of “Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again”, and in the end, it exceeded my expectations. It is hard for me to describe just what the sound is other than ambient glitch or cathedral electronica, but what is much easier to describe is how the sound affects myself as a listener. It affects me in such a way that it allows me to fully relax and listen to all the intricate details that Tim has put into this record. Overall, “Ravedeath, 1972” is already a candidate on my list for the best ambient album of 2011. Sure, the album artwork and track titles containing a falling piano may sound silly and somewhat intriguing, but the sound is far removed from nearly anywhere silly, as it is instead a serious ambient album that tries to get the listener to listen to the details and fall victim to the sweeping soundscapes. Tim Hecker has outdone himself again here, being one more step ahead of everyone else in the ambient and glitch genres. Highly recommended listening.
Title: Ravedeath, 1972
Artist: Tim Hecker
Released 2011 by Kranky Records
Available at all major retailers!