Despite David Byrne and St. Vincent gracing the decommissioned altar of the Church of St. John the Baptist, despite Win Butler and the Strokes’ Nik Fraiture running a charity basketball game in McGill’s shoebox-sized gym, despite even a homecoming set by Grimes, the most-hyped performance at Pop Montreal this September was the premiere of new work by drone maestro Tim Hecker. Call it home cooking–Hecker, though a Vancouver native, lives and works in Montreal–but his at the very-much-in-service Church of St. John the Evangelist was at the center of the festival’s conversation. Or, if not at the center of the festival proper, then at the center of the conversations being held by academics, career musicians–people for whom music serves as a kind of totem, rather than a lubricant. Me, I skipped out in the name of a free dinner, but it’s hard to imagine any response to the ways Hecker’s walls of sculpted dissonance must have rattled St. John’s red-tin roof but awe.
It seems imminently appropriate for Hecker to have staged his show in a church. Say what you want about your Fleet Foxes, your Sufjans, your Alabama Shakes, there’s no artist more deeply indebted to the deep history of sacred music. Both 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972 and Instrumental Tourist, his recent collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never (né Daniel Lopatin) are informed by a sense of what we might call the holy, or at least the sublime. And while the forms that make up Ravedeath’s twelve tracks are too large to be fully taken in, much less fully interacted with on anything but their own terms, Instrumental Tourist is a more personal (and personable) listen–the sublime reaching out to you.
In hindsight this makes perfect sense. Lopatin’s work tends to be focused on the incredibly minute. He’ll nip a tick of vocal here, double it on itself, build an environment for it. On paper, it’s only logical that he’d temper Hecker’s macro vision. But, outside of jazz, collaboration rarely seems to work this way, with both artists’ voices very much in conversation with one another, and while it’s probably fair to criticize the pair for not taking the opportunity to forge into new territory, it’s hard to be disappointed when their discussions are this fascinating. Layers of wordless vocals dart and whisper in and around the mechanistic thrum of tape hiss in “Whole Earth Tascam.” The rhythm isn’t built on the sample itself, but on the edit, the miniature gap created as the second-long hiss re-cues; technological error is its locomotion.
The pair are collegial in interviews, joshing back and forth about the recording process like a pair of sophomores tapping at Fruity Loops during study breaks. There was ostensibly a plan here, authored by Lopatin, for the pair to play around with various ethnic instruments (hence the album’s title), a lark which was quickly and entirely deconstructed in the name of anti-imperialism; there might be some obscure African woodwind tacked deep-down in “Racist Drone,” say, but everything across Instrumental Tourist is obscured to the point of radical unfamiliarity. Despite the clipped and looped sacred vocals strung through the album, and the flashes of guitar that sketch around here and there, the antenna buzz of a cell phone receiving a signal that stitches its way through opener “Uptown Psychedelia” feels like the album’s most human moment. Whether it’s Hecker and Lopatin’s intention that a nonmusical glitch serve as the album’s lifeline, the fact that it does so–that it comes as a relief to hear that mistake–is jarring. Instrumental Tourist relies on these kinds of accidents for its vitality, regularly shouldering the automated perfection of technology off of its fixed track. words/ m garner