After more than a decade of seeing the man hone his craft and continually push the boundaries of his creative output, referring to Tim Hecker as anything less than a master sound artist would be unwise. Truly, there are few people who have managed to continually tap into such a penetrating vein of ambient music, and even fewer whose audio sculptures come close to exhibiting the monumental detail and depth that Hecker's possess. Again enlisting the help of Ben Frost and a handful of other collaborators, Hecker has crafted another intense, singular sonic world with Virgins, an LP that moves at a breakneck pace—at least by ambient-music standards—between foreboding passages of acoustic force and breathtaking sections of aurual bliss.
Even someone who does not consider themselves a "fan" of ambient music is likely to at least be taken aback by the sonic majesty of Virgins. More than ever, Hecker's sounds have a physical presence and impact here, and even with the knowledge that many of his sound sources originated in the acoustic world, it is impossible to say exactly where the real-world recordings end and the manipulation begins. As album opener "Prism" leads into "Virginal I," cascading layers of string-like plucks take over. Listening to the music, one can't be sure whether these are the result of prepared pianos, some kind of dulcimer-like instrument, or even some transparent computer processing. Details like these are intriguingly unclear throughout the record, but in the end, they're largely unimportant to the album's trajectory as a whole. The specific behind-the-scenes mechanics which cause, for instance, these melodic plucks to turn into a sheet of hi-register drones before becoming dismantled underneath the weight of ascending sub-bass, easily evade one's consciousness. Somehow, Hecker enables listeners to suspend their disbelief, and as one sinks into the many aural splendors Virgins has to offer, it's easy to imagine the giant cathedral walls or neverending cavernous spaces Hecker's compositions are seemingly destined to exist within. It is this physical nature that makes the sound collages of Virgins so spellbinding—like a movie that subversively convinces the viewer that they are an actual witness to the action on screen, it is both easy and rewarding to become engulfed by the richness of Hecker's world.
In what is perhaps an unconventional method in terms of established ambient music, the movements of Virgins are rather fast-paced. Simply put, Hecker does not shy away from shifting momentum or themes on the LP in a somewhat brisk fashion. The aforementioned "Virginal I" has a six-minute run, but essentially moves through three different musical sections in that time; its counterpart later on in the tracklist, "Virginal II," similarly transforms itself multiple times. Furthermore, efforts like the loose-metered piano piece "Black Refraction," the airy woodwind collage "Amps, Drugs, Harmonium," and the powerfully fuzzy "Stigmata I" each resolve their excursions in under three minutes, even though their sonic building blocks are strong enough that Hecker could have carried their ideas much further. Still, Virgins rarely feels rushed or restless, and it is to Hecker's credit that he is able to seamlessly sink listeners so deep into one sonic world, only to move them to another one with just as much depth a few minutes later. The pace seems to lead to more attentive listening, as the music is not expected to simply put a part of one's mind to rest, but rather reward the diligent listener who allows themselves to absorb Virgins head on.
On a more basic level, the album sounds like it was painstaking to make. The attention to detail and masterful sonic construction with which Hecker presents his art does not sound like something that comes overnight. Still, through all the hours it must have taken to craft these sonic suites, Hecker somehow kept his head on straight, and has delivered an LP that is seamlessly coherent and purposeful throughout. In doing so, he's also landed on some of his most stirring single works to date, including the aforementioned "Black Refraction" and "Amps, Drugs, Harmonium," as well as the three cuts which provide the record's final 20 minutes, "Stigmata I," "Stigmata II," and "Stab Variation." In the end, Virgins only adds to the artist's growing legacy; it's another triumph for Hecker that once again strikes a resounding chord that not many ambient records can.