Tim Hecker – No Highs

Posted: 1 April 2023 in Albums
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Kranky – 7th April 2023

Christopher Nosnibor

I had been warned. A fellow reviewer who received this before me had said that this album had made him feel ‘unwell’. It was a compliment, of course. This comes as little surprise: Tim Hecker is an artist capable of creating the most intense and all-encompassing experiences, and while the live performance I attended in 2014 may not have made me feel ill, it did make me feel pretty weird, detached, disorientated. As the only artist I have ever known to use more smoke than The Sisters of Mercy and Sunn O))) combined, filling the room to the extent that it was impossible see your own hand in front of your face, let alone the person next to you, Hecker made me feel uncomfortable, and in some way a little scared in a claustrophobic way.

I’ve had a few records which have had a physical effect on me: listening to PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me for the first time with a brutal hangover is one standout experience, its raw and up-front lurching guitars punching my head and stomach simultaneously with puke-inducing results which went far beyond the post-booze discomfort. Because listening to music is not a passive activity, and as well as requiring focus, it would seem also degree of compassion – you feel its force physically as well as psychologically.

The notes which accompany Tim Hecker’s latest album are bold, to say the least, describing the Canadian composer as ‘a beacon of unease against the deluge of false positive capitalist ambient currently in vogue’ and continues, ‘Whether taken as warning or promise, No Highs delivers – this is music of austerity and ambiguity, purgatorial and seasick. A jagged anti-relaxant for our medicated age, rough-hewn and undefined.’

Clearly, this is exactly what I need, having felt tense and on edge, unable to catch my breath properly for several days now. If the album’s title sets the initial expectation, the track titles reinforce the album’s mood: ‘Monotony’; Pulse Depression’; ‘Anxiety’; ‘In Your Mind’; ‘Total Garbage’ – all the shades of dark, of bleak, of miserable, of self-questioning, panic.

The aforementioned ‘Monotony’ pings a single note back and forth for almost eight and a half minutes. Drones build sonorously behind it and swarm the mind as the volume grows and then shrinks again, and the buzzing and extranea become siren-like. And so, there is movement behind the tedious repetition, but it’s tense and unsettling. Moments of levity which appear to suggest tranquillity is within reach prove to offer nothing but false hope as we’re soon plunged into the gloaming, or otherwise into glitchy, lurching passages of unease. Soft sounds which ought to be mellow and soothing are rendered uncomfortable, or mournful, or both.

‘Lotus Light’ initially intimates a Krautrock pulsation, but some bending frequencies and melting notes swiftly take this trip on a rapid descent. If the lotus flower is supposed to signify rebirth and enlightenment, then this is one which is wilting, poisoned, and if eating the lotus is supposed to provide a conduit to pleasure, this is the soundtrack to picking the wrong plant, as everything rushes forward too fast and you’re not in control. You don’t feel right: you feel drugged, delirious.

‘In Your Mind’ picks and stabs away with tempo changes galore, surging and sweeping this way and that, echoing reverberations around the cranial cavities before booming stabs of synth blast through the drifting haze, before ‘Monotony II’ returns like a waking memory of a traumatic dream from the night before. The trilling saxophone does nothing to calm the mind or the mood. And over the course of more than eight minutes, ‘Anxiety’ recreates the experience if that increasing heartrate and the clenching of every muscle perfectly. That is to say, it’s brilliant, and also brilliantly difficult, and potentially triggering to some. The flickering, fluttering electronic throbs are practically Jean Michelle Jarre reimagined as a fibrillation.

No Highs is a difficult album, but how difficult depends on our headspace: from a certain perspective, it’s a cinematic electronic set, but from various others it’s the soundtrack to being unable to settle, to relentless tension, to jitters and fretting, and worse. The notes oscillate and you clench; sudden spurts of sound burst and you jump momentarily., before ‘Sense Suppression’ pulls you down, slowly, into a sea of sound, before the album drifts away to nothing on the drifting tides of ‘Living Spa Water’.

No Highs is sad and dark and deeply affecting, and not necessarily in the ways you’d expect. Listen and share the suffering.



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