Richard D. James has grown silent… In order to hear Clark’s chin-stroking IDM in its proper context, you have to listen to it resound out of the empty space left by Apex Twin’s lengthening absence from every good music geek’s Amoeba shopping bag. For years, James has been telling us that he is sitting on a goldmine of “about 1,000” unreleased tracks and six unreleased albums, but the contrarian insists on keeping them under wraps, unheard. Since 2001’s Drukqs, from this cache, James has committed to vinyl only his Analord project, released in a burst in 2005. The sheer velocity of James’ increasingly austere and formalistic output under his acid-house AFX moniker, last used in the early 1990s for his Analogue Bubblebath albums, suggests either that James has a pretty deep well of similarly exhaustive projects among those thousand unreleased tracks or that the menacingly beautiful pop of his mid-90s peak has folded in on itself, ballooning complexity finally coming to rest, Rubber-Johnny-style.
Beginning in the very same moment that Aphex Twin fell silent, Chris Clark made a name for himself with a series of releases on Warp that sounded just as if they were vintage-1999 IDM classics — in effect, carrying on Aphex Twin’s career if Aphex Twin was content to continue the trajectory of that period, providing us the brilliantly pulverized and obscenely smeared pop drum ‘n’ bass that we demand. This has always marked Clark as something of a guilty pleasure for me, an ersatz nostalgia act on a label committed to iconoclastic futurism. On Iradelphic, Clark makes a sizable sonic departure from this tried-and-true brand, accelerating his recent investigations into vocal song structures and exploring rudimentary acoustic guitar textures, with mixed results.
The album has invited frequent comparisons to Bibio’s sunny folktronica, and though rumors Bibio “helped” him with the rudimentary guitar were vehemently denied on Bibio’s blog, Clark has admitted the influence. However, Clark insists that all of the guitar sketches on the album are his; he says he taught himself by playing “pretty obsessively for about a year.” Listening closely to several of the acoustic tracks on this album, you can hear him learning: I like the songs in which you can sense the hesitancy of his fingers in reaching for the right fret, feel the sheer pleasure in banging on resonating strings, as in “Ghosted,” a clanging lo-fi tantrum of a song in which Clark repeats the same chord again and again to a hesitant electric accompaniment, as if he is still learning where to put his fingers. The song’s frustrated anger is clear enough in its texture, repetition, in its blunt fingering and hastily erased vocal fragments, so the rushed and over-literal lyric “And you’re still right here when I sleep/ So why don’t you just come back home” delivered in a sing-song, ersatz Justin Vernon falsetto, drains all of the poetry from the tentative, suggestive opening. That said, the addition of acoustic textures generates some interest on the closing “Pining” trilogy over its 10-minute length, giving it some swivel in its hips and adding to its mix of wordless chants, analog synths, and a xylophone that is, surprisingly, not the most twee moment on the album.
The appeal of late-90s Aphex Twin-model IDM was in its juxtaposition of the complexity of its twisting breakbeats and digital drum programming with the purity and simplicity of its melodies. Aphex Twin floated his Satie-worthy melodies over rhythms clocking at four times the tempo. Clark has demonstrated an impressive talent for building similarly melancholy, crumbling edifices of sound, making thousands of extraneous pieces of sonic information cohere into an incredibly simple form. The modest miniatures on this album showcase this juxtaposition and comprise its most memorable and replayable moments, especially the early electroacoustic sketches on which Clark’s melodic touch shines. In “Com Touch,” an arpeggiated synth sizzles, blurts, and swoons; on “Tooth Moves” and “Skyward Bruise/Ascent,” that same synth sends a sequence of squelches tripping along a luminous arc of sound.
Clark’s latest must be judged on different terms from his earlier efforts, because he tries his hand at more ambitious songwriting and new emotional timbres. Most of these more ambitious songs only called attention to their lack of development, or as Clark sings on “Open,” their “Ebb and flow of a thousand lonely outlines.” On this song, trip-hop survivor Martina Topley-Bird merely repeats the phrase again and again accompanied by slightly jazzy acoustic percussion. “Growls Garden,” the pop core of Clark’s last album, was similarly repetitive, but the repetition was justified by the damaged imagery of its lyric and its climactic bursts of distortion, marking the song as a worthy imitator of Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy.” By contrast, the pleasantness of the sunnier acoustic songs on this album seems unconvincing. The acoustic bass and live percussion of “Secret” gives it some of the breakbeat drama of a Portishead track, but it leads nowhere, and Topley-Bird’s weightless delivery comes across less as effortless exotica than winking, heavy-braceleted pastiche. And I guess that’s part of the problem with the album for me: much of it has a bushy-tailed directness and sunny feeling that just seems facile and unearned, especially coming off of the face-melting furnace blast of Turning Dragon and the disturbingly broken pop turns of Totems Flare. Clark has not brought me as a listener along with him on this journey to ambivalence avenue.
Richard D James has grown silent, but he continues to DJ and put on live-only, one-time collaborations, following the model of the classical concert or the art installation more than the pop music model. The genius has stopped singing, and he is perhaps foregrounding the role of the listener, in one-time events that are heard only once, experienced in context, in true rave style. James is a listener himself; his most recent artistic output is conducting a piece by “remote control,” that quintessential viewer’s instrument of the cut. Arguably, the most significant musical statement James has made in the past 10 years was an act of listening; his release on Rephex Records of the seminal documents of dubstep, the Grime and Grime 2 compilations. Likewise, James’ DJ sets, such as the collaborations with sound artist Florian Hecker and live collaborative remixes with Krzysztof Penderecki represent a restless ear.
From its very beginning, IDM has been about the primacy of the ear over the body, the music experienced in album form, not, as in the club, as one element in a contextual situation. The cover of Warp’s first Artificial Intelligence compilation (the first track is by James, in his Dice Man guise) depicted a reclining and solitary music consumer, not a crowd of blissed-out ravers. Clark’s albums have been pure pleasure for that music geek who came of age in the late 90s. Perhaps this album’s refusal to give me the sounds I expect is a result of a change in Clark’s own listening habits, but mine is an ear still nostalgic for Flim’s peerless lullaby. Still, I feel a twinge of guilt when I find myself mentally programming twisting drill-and-bass beats underneath Clark’s sunny acoustic sketches.