Tim Hecker / Julianna Barwick Live Review (RNCM, Manchester. 1/4/14)

Many months ago, after hearing that Tim Hecker would be performing in Manchester, I knew in a snap moment that I had to go. There was no way I was going to miss it – alone or with other people – and for £14.50 it seemed like an absolute bargain, especially considering that it was to take place in the Royal Northern College of Music. A real venue for music. On the 1st of April, I spent my morning in work, had a quick nap and a frozen pizza, and then set off to the venue while itching with excitement… 

Before I go further, I have to admit that I was getting my doubts while I was travelling to the venue. I was worried that I’d be disappointed considering that the entire audience would be seated and that Hecker would be static, working with his Mac, pedals and electronics. I’ve seen electronic artists live before and felt very bored or lukewarm throughout, and I didn’t want to feel the same for this, especially for Hecker considering how much I love his music… but it turned out that I didn’t need to worry. Also, I usually try to get a decent photo at some point at a gig, but it was honestly too dark (and while it is bad etiquette, it felt even more so at this sort of venue, so I didn’t bother).

There was only one support (or it may have been co-headlined, I’m not sure), Julianna Barwick, an ambient-drone musician who I’d only been made aware of when this gig was announced and whose music I’ve been exploring a lot lately. Barwick walked onstage out of the darkness, with a single light illuminating her station consisting of a mic, MIDI keyboard, pedals and other electronics. The backdrop for her set was simply a circle projected onto a black screen behind her, and in the circle images of the universe scanning from right to left, dissolving between stars, galaxies and planets – the latter making me think of extreme close-ups of marbles. It really added to the ethereal vibe of Barwick’s music.

As for Barwick herself: I would have happily paid the ticket price alone just to see her. Seeing her build her tracks into life by looping her vocals, adding effects and layers and adding keyboards was just so interesting to watch. Probably the most mesmerising part of it all was just how easily and fluently she made it look, especially with her voice control. A lot of the time, she used quiet melodies, but every now and then she would just come out with a much louder, raw and emotional wail that just hit you. During one of these moments… I have to admit… I got a little teary-eyed. Bite me. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few other people felt the same too. She was just powerful, and you couldn’t help but admire her voice control. It is just astounding.

She played for around 45-minutes (I think) that just flew by and she walked off seeming pretty humbled by everyone’s strong applause. Believe me, I haven’t heard a crowd burst into genuine glee for a long, long time.

After a fifteen or twenty minute break, the room dimmed into darkness again. This time however, there was no projection and no single light beaming onto the stage. Nothing. Just an open door to the side of the stage where light fell through onto the main workstation, only just making it visible. A shape moves in the darkness and is only revealed by the Mac screen and a single LED light pointing down on the effects. Tim Hecker is here.

From what I remember, no-one applauded, or at least not half of the audience did, because frankly, we were all shit scared. There was something about this minimalist setup and Hecker’s soundless arrival that made it feel like an execution. Although Hecker wasn’t being executed: he was the executioner and we were the kill.

Within seconds, vibrations begin to ring from the stacked monitors at the sides of the stage and you can feel the power as the Prism unfolds, soon becoming Virginal I. These are the only tracks I’m completely sure of. I’m pretty sure he played his latest album “Virgins” in its entirety, I can’t completely confirm it, but I’m pretty sure he did. If I am right, then if you thought “Virgins” was a great record (like I did with it being in my top 15 albums of 2013), then you will grow to love it even more after hearing it live. I said in that list “I imagine that this album is most like what a Tim Hecker live performance would be like” and I realise that it probably is a live album in a way, just very well mastered.

One of the main things about the whole performance was the volume: it was LOUD. The bass for some periods of time would begin to thrum through the entire theatre and, in the absolute literal truth, I could feel my hair and face vibrating. My arm, which was hurting from work, felt a little worse. Just imagine being in a pitch-black cinema and the volume 5x as loud (maybe more). It was crazy!

The antithesis of those moments were (obviously) the softer and more melodic parts, although the electricity of the bass never quite disappeared. Drones and samples would just swell into soundscapes and collages; it was like being lost in a sea of memories made up by all these different sounds, all fading in and out like radio static. If you’ve already heard “Virgins”, then you’ll already know what I mean. After about an hour (I couldn’t tell how long it went on for), Hecker soothed his set out into silence, and the audience again burst into a full-hearted applaud. He went around the side of his workstation and bowed – barely visible still – before disappearing back into complete darkness. I was left stunned and speechless as I smashed my palms together.

In brief: I would have quite happily payed twice the amount of the ticket price if I knew I was going to witness something like that. I felt like a thief, but a happy one. It was just perfect. The music, the visual approach, the volume and the theatre’s acoustics. All perfect. It even made me realise how nice it was to be in a venue made for music rather than bars or halls where I’ve been subjected to bearable and ok sound qualities.

Easily one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Life-changing. If you ever get the chance to see him or Julianna Barwick live, please go, you will not regret it.

Below is an audio only video I took during the first fifteen minutes of Hecker’s performance – like I said, it was way too dark to even bother. It really doesn’t do the volume justice, but it’s good quality considering.

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3 thoughts on “Tim Hecker / Julianna Barwick Live Review (RNCM, Manchester. 1/4/14)

  1. tony b says:

    I agree with your comment on it being loud. I was at the gig and had to leave after less than 20 minutes, my ears were actually hurting.

    • richreviewz says:

      Wow, really? Are your ears are ok now? I keep thinking of getting protection for my ears and I was a tad worried when the bass first started at the gig, but my ears were ok. I usually do get that long-lasting tinnitus sound after loud gigs but didn’t get it at Hecker’s, surprisingly.

  2. tony b says:

    Yes, my ears are fine now. They were sore the next day rather than ringing.
    I had actually gone to see Julianna Barwick, so all was not lost. Having not heard Tim Hecker before it was a bit disappointing to miss out on something new.

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