Clark: Totems Flare

Totems Flare

I’m doing impressions tonight. Would you like to hear my impression of Chris Clark’s 2008 LP Turning Dragon? And a 1, and a 2, and a POW! POW! POW! POW! CRUNNNCH! POP-POP-POP-POP KABOOM!! PITTA-PITTA POP POP POP CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA BAM BAM BAM BAM THUNK THUNK TICKA-TICKA-TICKA-TICKA-TICKA-TICKA-TICKA BOOOOOOM!!!!

Clark’s sharp left turn into rhythmic noise à la Converter might not have felt like such an ambush had it not been billed as the counterpart to his breakout Body Riddle in 2006. As Prefuse 73’s influence was growing viral and every producer on Warp was expected to julienne their material to within an inch of its life, Clark dialed down the breaks, played it straight with melody, and made a record about emotion. Fewer cutups meant more room to focus on texture—a sensual, imposing thing like strangulation by sheets of gauze—and how texture could pair with melody to reach the places inside us that are difficult to access. Body Riddle was music to submit to, a painful but deeply pleasurable caress of a black angel’s velvet glove, before the PHOOM PHOOM PHOOM! CRACK-SNAP-CRACK-SNAP WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! POW! POW! POW! Fuck.

Understandable sighs of relief rustled across the blogosphere when Totems Flare‘s first single, “Growls Garden”, began with a melody and not a beat. As a workout album and an exercise in sustained groove, Turning Dragon was basically flawless, though Clark probably figured that after pulverizing us for the better part of an hour we’d finally had enough. And so he takes it back a little, pitching Totems Flare somewhere between his last two records as far as the beat-to-melody ratio goes. But thinking about Totems Flare as a beat-laden Body Riddle a or tamer Turning Dragon doesn’t quite capture it, because in some respects this is Clark’s most aggressive recording, turgid with melodies that barrel ahead with an almost emotionless intensity. It’s also his most intentionally fun, although anyone who’s been scolded by a parent to quit roughhousing knows that some people’s idea of fun involves a little violence.

Really, there’s no other way to describe “Rainbow Voodoo”, a manic breakcore shakedown with Clark himself providing witchdoctor vocals run through vox technology. Or “Luxman Furs”, a demented and brazenly stupid Britney shuffle. Or “Growls Garden”, which begins with what sounds like come-hither chants from a wild animal (a beast named Growl, perhaps?) and then crash-lands as a technoid stomp that’s had dumbstruck listeners like myself reaching for the next superlative since it was released in March. Other songs just seem violent, particularly “Talis”, with its industrial moans and threatening, high-octane drum pattern. Still others come flying in from out of nowhere: “Absence” really and truly is just some Spanish guitar cloaked in reverb, though it doesn’t feel terribly misplaced since the rest of Totems Flare is so difficult to parse. It’s spotty by design, intended to reflect Clark’s various experiences living in parts of England and Berlin, Germany, and the record leaps from one mood to entirely another the way Clark must have jumped cities.

That makes for some pretty inconsistent listening, and there’s actually a lot of aggression in the sequencing as well as in the songs themselves. It would be too arduous a task to chart its path in this space, but I’ll just say that when 78 seconds of silky ambience arrive on the eighth track, “Primary Balloon Landing”, it is quite the relief. Of course, many of these songs were written to work on their own, and several of them can: “Outside Plume” is strangely affective body music, beginning with a few startlingly emotive pitch-shifted notes that segue against the odds into an off-kilter rave-up. “Look into the Heart Now” might ape Luke Vibert a bit, especially in his Ace of Clubs guise, but the track is nicely streamlined and matchlessly engineered. I’m not certain, however, that Clark’s attempts to be jocular and satirical (“Luxman Furs”, “Rainbow Voodoo”) do the record any good or should even be tried again. Deep within the FOOM! FOOM! FOOM! of Turning Dragon was an ineffable grace, a kind of resonance that Body Riddle stated more directly. There’s something disheartening about hearing a producer so capable of reflecting truth and beauty go gimmicky.

As such, Totems Flare is the first of Clark’s records since Empty the Bones of You (2003) to not be an unqualified success. But even in the misfires, what links this album to the others is extremely high quality production and Clark’s professed perfectionistic streak, which, from the building blocks to the finishing touches, gives his music a scarily accomplished look. I’m even willing to bet that he employed the same sound library as Body Riddle and Turning Dragon, and many of the techniques have carried over—insane compression, oblique chord changes, flushes of white noise—although they’re used to remarkably different ends. According to no less an authority than Clark himself, these records form a trilogy, and it’s easy to hear them as three sides of the same personality: two fairly consistent, and one wildly mercurial, frequently brilliant and moderately frustrating. Which somehow feels appropriate for a musician so preoccupied with humanity and who displays it so convincingly in his art. Clark would risk appearing just a little too perfect if Body Riddle and Turning Dragon were allowed to stand alone, and nobody’s perfect.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.