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Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin, ‘Instrumental Tourist’ (Software)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 20, 2012
Label: Software

When Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a., Oneohtrix Point Never) and Tim Hecker performed together at this year’s Unsound Festival in Krakow, it seemed like they might bring the house down — literally. Facing each other across their laptops in the apse of St. Catherine’s Church, they sounded placid enough at first, filigreeing sampled pipe-organ drones with filaments of synthesizer and a rosy, staticky glow that wafted dreamily through the marble arches. But once the duo got rolling, letting loose with an overwhelming chug that pulsed like a hungry black hole, it felt like sitting inside an ocean liner’s engine room instead of a 16th-century church. It was, apparently, too much for the priest on duty, who frostily told festival organizers that this would be the last show they ever put on in St. Catherine’s. (The reaction was understandable: It seriously felt like the chandeliers were going to fall down, if the stone itself didn’t crumble.)

You would need one hell of a sound system (and some prime Gothic real estate) to replicate those vibes with Instrumental Tourist, a low-key collaborative effort from the two leading lights of drone music circa 2012. Even cranked to 11, the moments of enthralling throb here are far more fleeting; live, they went in hard on volume and drama, but this is a different proposition. The record is quieter, and it moves in curious curlicues, flitting between rapture and slightly arch remove. Where ambient music tends to pursue sound as pure, immediate sensation, this is equally about the ways that sound and musical experience are mediated. Rather than a dry, academic exercise, however, it frames its critical aims in terms of auditory seduction. As Lopatin explained in a talk at Unsound, “We tried to think about sonic environments in an allegorical way, creating humorous still-lifes.” In other words, it’s two smart, wry dudes (who are nevertheless susceptible to ambient music’s precognitive charms) having their cake and problematizing it too.

Recorded during three days of jamming on synthesizers, samplers, and VSTs — collaged together across another week of Teo Macero-style mixdown — Tourist is heavy on both musicians’ signature sounds: Hecker’s groaning pipe organs and eviscerating digital distortion, and Lopatin’s sour, melancholic synthesizer leads, which buzz and flicker like dying fluorescent tubes. Both musicians are fans of long, sensuous tones and veils of static, and those properties predominate here. Per ambient’s conventions — think of Erik Satie’s “furniture music” or Brian Eno’s unapologetically functionalist Music for Airports — they rely heavily on sounds and structures that don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves. Chords flutter and dissolve into static; synthesizer leads meander with the indifference of the river from which that particular verb takes its name.

But there’s another element at play. The music’s sensually immersive core elements are balanced by hyper-specific sounds like koto, sitar, pan flutes, angelic choirs, chanting monks, birdsong, and Mellotron — or, to be more precise, samples and synthesizer presets meant to evoke those sounds. You might call them “scare-quotes sounds,” so heavily referential that they’re hard to break out of their signifying frame. (Hence the tracks “Racist Drone” and “Grey Geisha,” with their keening, Orientalist air.) There’s a similarity here to the interest in sonic kitsch and pop-culture readymades that animates the work of artists like James Ferraro, but I don’t think that irony, exactly, is the duo’s endgame. In their talk, Lopatin discussed a mutual interest in “taking highly plasticized presets and re-skinning them,” using “grit” and “gristle” to lead to a process of “re-plasticization.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it reads as an attempt to rescue presets — the heavily generic sounds that come loaded in every synthesizer or sample pack — from their narrow, pre-ordained fates by stretching and pulverizing them into something new, something strange, maybe even something “real.” It’s a salvage job, in other words, on the part of two properly post-modernist musicians who are really High Romantics at heart — a critical exercise that trolls and thrills in equal measure, balancing myth-busting with genuine jouissance.

As pure listening experience, Tourist‘s mazelike structure, full of echoes and switchbacks, best lends itself to listening on shuffle. The intended sequencing of the album doesn’t quite work: The vast majority of the tracks are between five and six minutes long, and the mood throughout is resolutely hushed, even when an explosion of squeals threatens to peel the roof off like some cosmic can opener. There are few repetitive rhythms here — something of a surprise, given Oneohtrix Point Never’s previous fixation on rippling, rapid-fire arpeggios — and the tempo throughout is stately, like a religious procession that’s floating in midair. The uniformity of the album’s mood can feel stiflingly anticlimactic. But somehow, randomizing the track order sets the music free, adding a degree of spontaneity to the drifting melodies and eddying digital delay, upping the WTF-factor when an echo of the soundtrack to The Mission crops up after a squall of overdriven feedback.

It does feel like something is missing; the record could use more abstractions along the lines of “GRM Blue II” — titled in reference to Avid’s GRM Tools digital-audio plug-ins, which are themselves titled in reference to the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, a pioneering French electro-acoustic institution — or the title track, which sizzles like opal in a microwave. It could use more moments of rupture, too: The whole thing is almost deceptively pretty, like New Age peppered with hackers’ “Easter eggs,” if only you know where to look for them. Still, as a state-of-the-ambient-nation circa 2012, Instrumental Tourist offers a rich mixture of food for thought and fuel for zoning out. It’s Klaus Schulze meets Pierre Bordieu; it’s one of Brian Eno’s generative compositions if it suddenly became self-aware and began reciting, in 1s and 0s, “This is not my beautiful life! How did I get here?”