The Black Dog Radio Scarecrow

[Soma; 2008]

Styles: melodic techno perfection
Others: B12, Kirk DiGiorgio

It is no enviable task for any musician to improve upon past releases, especially when that past includes a touchstone such as Black Dog's Warp release Bytes -- not to mention the EPs scattered across their own Black Dog Productions imprint, General Productions, and collaborative works on A.R.T. Worse still would be to carry on under an identity after a split -- in this case, with Ed Handley and Andy Turner, who now record as Plaid. Remaining member Ken Downie, and to some degree Plaid, have lived in the shadow of Bytes since its release. However, with the addition of The Dust Brothers in 2005's Bite Thee Back EP, the work of The Black Dog v.3 has proven to be of measurably equal strength to this signature release and even dares to outshine it.

Building upon a steady stream of EPs and one full-length, Downie, Dust, and Dust have realized their second LP as a trio with Radio Scarecrow. Progressing with the urgency of a well-written novel -- and similar in manner to DJs of yore, who sought to create a structured story -- the album is presented as a seamless mix. The whole works within a defined, linear narrative, greatly replacing the odd rhythmic vignettes that inhabited earlier works, choosing instead to build slowly to climax and then graciously outro.

"Transmission Start" arrives on Vangelis-sized wings, beginning with ripples of sine tone and synth chords slowly spreading open. Processed percussive clatter and heavy swell begin to reveal "Train By The Autobahn (Part One)" waiting on the near horizon; it unfolds in heavy tones surging and subsiding, rising occasionally into an empyreal glow, while delicate drum patterns push the whole along, a 303 looping discreetly in the distance. It is as wondrous as tracks from Bytes or even Temple of Transparent Balls. It all sounds a bit cosmic and mystical in description, surely, but it is not meant as a slight or as a suggestion of compositional tongue-in-cheek.

There has always been an overtone of mysticism to The Black Dog, whether rooted in the Egyptian figures of Spanners or in the flow of 0s and 1s of Bytes. Radio Scarecrow was developed amid their fascination and research with EVP, Numbers Stations, and Magick, which find their way onto the work, albeit in a hidden fashion. They seem to appear most obviously in the three final tracks of the album, "Dials & Dialers 1 and 2" and "Ghost Vexations"; the unsettling "Alien" atmospherics that introduce "Riphead v9" could also be invested with one of these influences, as could the undulating tones that are layered just beneath the fluttering beat of "...Short Wave Lies." Knowing The Black Dog, however, they are likely scattered throughout the album with a far less obvious presence in rhythm-heavy tracks, which is more fitting to their proclivities.

Ken, Martin, and Richard have stated in interviews that the album has a stronger focus on the beat than do previous recordings. The nagging low-end rattle of "Set to Receive" alone wholly affirms this, with a nod to the current high-value currency of dubstep, here affixed to the signature melodic Black Dog vibe. "EVP Echoes" follows, in what is irrefutably a major highlight of the album, a potent study of dopplered phrases progressing forth alongside ping-ponging tones, throbbing beat, and drifting harmonies that segue effortlessly into the beast of "Floods v3.9." Previously released as a 12-inch some months back in "v3" form, with ".1" and ".2" mixes courtesy of Surgeon, this track is a monster fitted with a heavy bassline that reverberates in your chest and an industrial clang rattling through dimly-lit ambience. "Beep" is yet another beast, sinking deep into your belly with a bass-heavy swagger of a beat that lasts well into the haunting, layered melodies of "Witches Ov," which lean back quite heavily to successes of yore.

Downie, thankfully, remains rooted in the melodic techno that he has practiced for nearly 20 years, while simultaneously looking forever forward in an effort to forge new identities with his now partners. While the signature style they work from may not be in current critical favor, they argue its continued importance and relevance with this work, proving it to be as valid as anything else out there with one tenth of the history. With Radio Scarecrow, Downie and the brothers Dust have done the heads good, very good indeed.

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