Beauty and brutality collide in Konoyo, Tim Hecker’s latest ambient effort that expertly balances crushing industrial sounds with brief moments of fleeting grace. Composed with the help of a traditional Japanese gaguku ensemble, it expertly bridges the gap between both electronic and classical, Eastern and Western forms. Rewarding repeat listens, it is a lush tapestry of ambient textures that paint the descent from one life to another. Hecker’s albums are as much about where they are recorded as what they are about. Ravedeath, 1972, for instance, was recorded in a Church in Reykjavík. Konoyo continues this holy theme, trading in the Lutheran faith for a Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Suiting its reverent setting, Konoyo opens with the chilling “This Life”, which features descending, elongated vocals that sound like a fall from grace. Its a fitting introduction to a world of disintegration, of mechanical sounds and textures that feel like they have been torn about and cannot be put together again. According to Buddhist belief, the journey from this world (Konoyo) and that of the dead (Anoyo) takes 49 days. The remaining runtime after “This Life”  is exactly 49 minutes and seven seconds as if to depict aurally what that journey might sound like if the underworld was comprised of abandoned factories being toured by ghostly Japanese musicians.

The enigmatic “In Death Valley” continues this theme of descent, using pulsating synths and drum sounds to convey a sense of unsure movement, before finally cutting out into pure, simple ambiance. This time between worlds is also meant to be used to tend to unresolved issues, or to reflect on one’s own life, the brief stabs of melody punctuating the delicate “Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light” suggesting bittersweet attempts at remembrance and contemplation.

 In Death Valley – Tim Hecker

Things take a much darker turn in “Keyed out”, a post-techno atmosphere heavy on dislocating and disorientating sounds, rattling percussion and densely layered squiggles, before blissing out once again into the next track. “In mother earth phase” is the most elegantly composed song of the album, combining the falling vocals of “This Life” and the beauty of “Is a rose petal” with soaring shō and woodwind harmonies, a culmination of everything already heard so far. A mini-symphony in and of itself, “In mother earth phase” even contains tones evoking film composition and traditional Japanese classical music.

A sodium codec haze” is more difficult to get into, soaring woodwind notes giving the unfavorable impression of the kettle going off. Things pick up near the end with a medley of actual bells, as if to reward one’s earlier patience, but this obvious through-line makes it easily the weakest song of the series. Then, as Hecker is wont to do, he ends the album with its longest song, the 15-minute “Across to Anoyo”, featuring bleepy, whirring sounds that eventually drown out simple Japanese drums, suggesting an ancient world lost to rampant modernity.

Across To Anoyo – Tim Hecker

As expressed in previous albums, the suggestion is clear that this lost and fallen life is due to the excesses of technology, which in their very transient nature, threaten to overwhelm us and make us lose sight of what is truly important. “Across to Anoyo” makes this point and then some, before finishing on a trademark, floating high sound that suggests some kind of vague redemption. It’s the most difficult listen on the album, feeling at times like Hecker is simply elongating certain sounds to perfectly mirror those 49 minutes.

Tim Hecker doesn’t so much make albums as create elegant soundscapes one can get lost in. Creating a perpetual sense of things disintegrating, these songs meld into one another to create a full and relatively satisfying work. While difficult to find oneself in, its haunting drone sounds are meant to inspire reverie in the listener – the more one listens to and reflects on his work, the more rewarding it gets. Written out altogether, the track-listing reads “This life/ In death valley/ Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light/ Keyed out/ In mother earth phase/ A sodium codec haze/ Across to Anoyo.” Reading like an imagist poem or a Haiku, the entire track-list is an invitation to join Hecker on a journey and trust his music to take you there.

Konoyo (full album) – Tim Hecker

While it is pretty unclear where the album is truly going, Konoyo must be marveled at for the scope of its ambition, and the delicate way it interweaves elements of Japanese music without ever feeling appropriative. While conceptually very strong, it could’ve benefited from a stronger melodic through-line and a clearer understanding of its own ideas. For example, the constant repetition of songs ending with a spaced-out synth and a simplicity of form is effective once before becoming slightly grating. There needn’t be such schematic mapping between idea and form, but with some tighter composition, Hecker’s themes could’ve come out a lot stronger. Yet these are minor quibbles in what is overall a fantastic album. Konoyo is some of the most interesting electronic music released this year, and another fine addition in Tim Hecker’s discography.  

The Verdict: Konoyo is a stunning sonic mixture of classical and electronic music that falls just a little short of greatness due to its often schematic musical structure.

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