Music Reviews
Totems Flare

Clark Totems Flare

(Warp) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

Chris Clark has been taking IDM a bit too literally. Since he began making music at the turn of the century, Clark’s been toying around with a number of musical influences trying to find that sweet spot between the experimental and the accessible, the sophisticated and the simple, and, dare I say, between the “intelligent” and the “dance”. However, if you’ve ever listened to an album featuring the photo-shopped, smirking mug of Richard D. James you’ll know this is easier said than done. And, while I don’t mean to bash on the granddaddy of our beloved genre, let’s face it: Aphex Twin’s “dance-ability” factor just isn’t up to par with the likes of Daft Punk or Justice. Maybe that’s the whole point; I mean, the “I” in IDM is probably there for a reason. With the ubiquity of ambient and abstract noise within IDM ranging from Boards of Canada’s “found sounds” to Aphex Twin’s manufactured ones, the scene has become a subset of experimental music and seems to have shed any association with the “D” in its name. Somebody seriously screwed up, however, because Chris Clark never got that memo.

Clark’s career has been spent defying the very contradiction at the heart of today’s Intelligent Dance Music — I mean, do IDM artists really expect us to get up and start dancing to their music? Well, if the turnout at my last Autechre-themed house party is any indicator, probably not.

Clark seems to have stumbled upon this inconsistency years ago with his 2001 debut Clarence Park which features an abrasive juxtaposition of Boards of Canada-style ambient, nostalgic IDM with glitchy, beat-driven tracks right out of a local dance club. Clarence Park is the perfect site to observe this IDM paradox in microcosm — one moment you’re wrapped up warm in a winter coat staring at a frozen wilderness, the next, thrust onto the dance floor. What the hell? 

While Clark tempered his sound with 2004’s suspiciously Four Tet-esque Body Riddle, it didn’t take long for him to return to exploring the “dance” side of IDM. Sidestepping the tendency of IDM artists to mitigate their tempo, 2008’s Turning Dragon listened like an audition to headline at a major UK rave or dance party, cranking up the BPM while beckoning fans to get onto the dance floor. Turning Dragon was the culmination of his efforts, somehow managing to be danceable without sacrificing the subtlety and sophistication so characteristic of his earlier releases. Now if only 2009 could have been as good as 2008.

Clark’s latest, Totems Flare is the logical outcome of a career spent trying to navigate the tricky corridors of seemingly contradictory musical aspirations. Tracks ranging from the opening Outside Plume to Totem Crackerjack end up a bit schizophrenic, beginning with concrete ideas but quickly buckling under the weight of too many competing influences. The songs that remain coherent hint at the direction Clark’s music is likely headed: the trance inspired Growls Garden along with Future Daniel are Totem’s standout tracks, masterfully incorporating the fuzz of club scene techno and trance music into the kind of soft keyboard melodies that made Aphex Twin a star of the IDM world. Rainbow Voodoo, on the other hand, sounds like a dub version of Squarepusher, complete with cheesy keyboard riffs and synthesized male vocals.

Totems Flare is an unfortunate victim of IDM’s own constraints. The success of Body Riddle and Turning Dragon, his two best albums, occurred primarily because they occupied two very different locations on the musical map and kept Clark’s borders expanding in coherent directions. Totems, on the other hand, takes nervous glances backward and keeps reigning in its sound to stay within the familiar territory explored on early releases. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s final track Absence which is more than just a visit to Clark’s Body Riddle days. Absence, itself a beautiful collection of reverb and guitar chords, sounds out of place and ends the album on a note right out of a Body Riddle b-side, a sound that Clark seems to have been trying to avoid on the rest of the album. The tendency for Clark’s recent releases to feature heavy use of trance-style synth riffs and drone noise isn’t an accident — his musical space has new contours and a new feel that apparently he isn’t too comfortable with yet. Ultimately, Totems functions as a decent well for drawing singles but, as an album, lacks the connective tissue to make it stand out within Clark’s impressive catalog.