Tim Hecker, Norberg

Michael Azerrad

By Michael Azerrad

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

There's a rattle and hum, sometimes a hiss verging on a roar, throughout Hecker's abstract electronic mini-epic "Norberg." That noise is awfully familiar — it's there in the ever-present urban whoosh of cars and planes and trains; in the 60 Hz buzz that pervades the industrialized world; in the hypnotic spatter of a summer cloudbreak on hot pavement; and, more metaphorically, in the psychic static and haze that blur thoughts, perceptions and especially memories. White noise embraces both stasis and chaos, and it (actually more like pink noise) shrouds "Norberg," enveloping its minimal melodies and investing them with a deep and ineffable emotional impact. It's the same effect that makes a foghorn sound so forlorn and brings poignancy to a neon sign buzzing in the rain. It is about the heartbreaking difference between distance and detachment.

Electronic maestro rejoices in the glorious sound of things falling apart.

The piece is in several sections: in each, a treated organic sound — such as vibraphone, organ or what sounds like the hyperextended ring of a singing sawblade — plays an extremely simple theme swathed deep in a seething rumble. The melody grows more urgent, complex, and distorted, subtly morphing the emotional narrative; meanwhile, the veil of fuzz thickens like a decaying FM signal, eventually enveloping everything in a serrated vortex of digital feedback, like a celestial vacuum cleaner — from which emerges the next submerged melody, describing a familiar cycle of mortality, decay, and rebirth.

Interference and noise can make one focus harder and tickle and excite the ear and brain, as in the way a fuzz pedal can make even the most pedestrian guitar chord sound like the orchestra of the gods. Hecker's work rightly gets compared to My Bloody Valentine very often, but he takes MBV's approach to further extremes: the melodies are more rudimentary, the cloak of noise much thicker, the compositional structures far more attenuated. The approach still works.

In the longest section of "Norberg," long, low, bleak smears of organ-like chords undulate and peal melancholy changes from deep within digital chatter like hissing high-tension cables or spitting rain — "whitecaps of white noise," as one Hecker song title once aptly put it. The chordal bed eventually becomes so distorted that the distortion itself becomes a harmonic component, but then, inevitably, it recedes into the distance, amid shortwave squiggles and various neuron misfires. Soon, even the noise falls apart: the low frequencies suddenly drop out, producing a heady weightless feeling, and "Norberg" abruptly concludes with a quick paroxysm of digital noise.

And here's the kicker: The sudden silence instantly reveals the ambience of a large, resonant room. It's a little stunning to realize this music did not take place in the hermetic world of recorded space but in public, at a live performance in the Swedish town of Norberg. Somewhere, someone in the audience ecstatically cries "Oh!" just before a burst of clattering applause, which sounds a lot like the noise that saturated the piece. And of course, that fades away too.