Ambient artist Tim Hecker’s albums are always indebted to the intricate ideas that inspire them. His 2011 album Ravedeath, 1972, on which a pipe organ sustained a low grumble beneath scattered synth pops and fuzz, struck a balance between Hecker’s concept and its execution, but the overwrought intellectualism of his other works has sometimes called into question whether his sound is as compelling as his vision.
The initial gambit of Love Streams, Hecker’s eighth album, is that he incorporates human voices into his canvas for the first time. Specifically, he rescored the work of a 15th-century choir composer using audio recognition software, then handed it off to the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and instructed its members to sing in a distorted, decelerated way. Yet Love Streams is far from a choral album; instead, Hecker’s multilayered process translates the vocal contributions into contorted, inhuman sounds, like the voice fragments on “Violet Monumental I,” which skip like a processor glitch, or the wordless staccato jabs that open “Black Phase.”
The same manipulated vocals color “Music of the Air,” which is the most concise presentation of the various sound strategies on Love Streams: The song’s subtle and imprecise melody seems to have to validate its existence by fighting against Hecker’s dense and eerie atmosphere, built of floating and whirring synth textures, droning bass lines, and scratches. Two similar-sounding transitions—one between “Violet Monumental I” and “Violet Monumental II,” the other between “Collapse Sonata” and “Black Phase”—feature synths ascending unevenly and unendingly, like they’re attempting to crawl above Hecker’s engineered murk, and “Violet Monumental II” buries the album’s most instant instrumental hook beneath celestial washes and stuttering bassoon.
Ironically, it’s Hecker’s use of digital instrumentation that best approximates organic noise. A dramatic succession of tones on opener “Obsidian Counterpoint” is laid atop a gritty scraping, like massive bells violently dragged through sand. A twin effect on the compact “Bijie Dream” makes it seem like the start-stop noodling of Hecker’s synths is scattering flocks of pigeons. And the field of static at the close of “Castrati Strack,” a standout that mesmerizes with the kind of repetitive, one-note clang that might play during a calm hospital evacuation, imitates hard rain falling on aluminum. In these moments, Hecker essentially inverts his formula of sending human choirs through computer analysis by coding found sounds and rendering them digitally himself.
This tangling of the natural and unnatural, always a central tension for Hecker, is also at the core of Love Streams, but this album is his deepest and most confrontational examination of the theme—and not only because he dehumanizes the voice and animates the analog. The album’s title is itself a dark pun, Hecker pairing the holiest emotion with the mundane—and ethically complicated, at least in the music industry—practice of online information sharing. A track title like “Live Leak Instrumental” explores the same thought: How can a song be a live, participatory music experience and also a leak, which signifies unauthorized access? Hecker asks questions like these, of authenticity and our inability to detect it, all over Love Streams; on “Voice Crack,” where slow, pretty marimba plays while automated sputtering simulates the unfolding of a giant helix, one gets the sense that the digital and the natural, however rendered, aren’t meant to comfortably coexist.
Simply enough, Love Streams is a discomforting listen, and the addition of voices to Hecker’s repertoire adds an additional tool of disorientation to his web of repurposed crackles and spurts, not the warmth one might expect. And while the album’s acoustic rubble might be filled with the intriguing sounds of aftermath (unrest, contemplation, and uncertainty), it also suggests that something more cohesive and beautiful was there before.