Chris Clark's latest IDM long-player is serenely gorgeous where his previous albums were abrasively mercurial, lacking only his sense of humor.
According to various Twitter feeds, IDM producer and Warp Records mainstay Clark -- first name Chris -- has named his new album Iradelphic as "an homage to the neglected people of Iradelphia". This begs the question: what and where the hell is Iradelphia? Is it a variation on the London district of Adelphi? An allusion to classical notions of brotherhood? A tribute to the Roots? Google searches and tossed-off queries to the artist himself shed zero light on the matter, which dignifies the suspicion that he's joking. This very real possibility provides an interesting perspective for Iradelphic, which marks a departure for the often oblique knob-twister. Here is an album of solemn splendor, as exquisite as it is emotionally direct, grounded in jazz rhythms and an acoustic guitar, of all things. It isn't at all as visceral as his previous albums, but it's nearly as heady, and far more consistently beautiful. If it's all a joke, then the joke is definitely on us.
Iradelphic was perhaps destined to mark a new beginning, following the one-two punch of Turning Dragon and Totems Flare, which together comprised the uncompromising conclusion of a loose trilogy beginning with 2006's masterful Body Riddle. Turning Dragon was a deep, dark beat machine, Totems Flare was an eclectic, shambolic manifesto, and, as if released from some prior repression in a surge of productivity, each album was a provocation in its own right. The former foregrounded stubborn club beats for a fanbase presumably seeking respite from such philistinisms, while the latter anthologized just about everything else propriety prevented Clark from doing before.
Of course, it's not as if propriety was ever really a concern for him -- longtime fans may remember four minutes of synthesized Celtic flute on "Lord of the Dance" a decade ago, and then there's the John Zorn-ish convulsions of "Roulette Thrift Run" from Body Riddle -- and yet Totems Flare so often breached the thin line between extreme music's anarchic sense of humor and outright tawdriness that it played like a confrontation. At least Turning Dragon's repetitive shocks solidified as dance music's instant gratification. What Totems Flare offered instead was the far less ingratiating thrill of ideas in procession, its pleasures depending for a large part on how willingly listeners surrendered themselves to Clark's flights of fancy. (The album's centerpiece "Totem Crackerjack", a spastic compendium of these impulses, was an endurance test in this regard.) The divided reactions -- ambivalent critics versus tenacious devotees -- suggested that many were not so willing, and Totems Flare remains Clark's most misunderstood and underappreciated work.
Iradelphic leaves those larks behind. After three years hopping between various European metropolises, Clark has refined his sound into something approaching -- perish the thought -- accessible. If Clark's best moments, as Pitchfork's Brian Howe has suggested, reflect a knack for the inversion of violence and tranquility, then Iradelphic is an inversion of that: passages that call for tranquility, remain tranquil, and violence is largely absent. Noisy moments are fewer, farther between, and supplementary to melodic functions rather than subversive. Even the unruly organ at the center of "Tooth Moves" is carefully contained, cathartic but never chaotic. Beauty and pathos are the organizing principles of an album that seeks to appeal rather than alienate.
Which is not to say it's an aesthetic about-face. Iradelphic bears the chilly humidity that's formed a vital part of his sound ever since Empty the Bones of You in 2003. Layers of melody and anti-melody reverberate alone and against each other as if aloft in an electrical storm. From the overstuffed, imbricated synths of "Com Touch" to the echoing steel drums closing "The Pining Pt 1", this signature is consistently present. Also present, though more residually, is a continued commitment to the academic ethos indigenous to IDM, a sort of techno qua techno manifest in fragmentary, horizontal compositions that resist separation from their album contexts. Even Clark's voice, tepidly inaugurated on Totems Flare where it was dragged down by what Dusted Magazine's Brandon Bussolini aptly described as his "Douglas Pierce-like moroseness", now featured at length sans distortion, delivers an Eno-esque monotone that is hardly more engaging. The closest Iradelphic comes to breaking with this cerebral formalism is "Secret", which features Martina Topley-Bird as the femme fatale vocalist in an uncharacteristically unfussy fusion of tango and hip-hop. It reaches a fever pitch when harmonized scats and syncopated hand claps coalesce around the halfway mark, anticipating a payoff that never comes. The building cacophony recedes abruptly into a spare, strummed guitar line that echoes the album's opening moments. Like "Ted" from Body Riddle, "Secret" is a tease, dissipating just prior to its own condensation.
By extending the promise of the sublime only to snatch it away, "Secret" exemplifies Iradelphic's coy beauty. Its structural crescendos (all three parts of "The Pining") and sustained heartstring-tugging (the rewinding-tape coda of "Tooth Moves") comprise an album of serene, often gorgeous evocations that would rather fuel desire than fulfill it. Clark's fans know that this is exactly what they're signing up for. What is sorely missed, however, is something "Secret" also embodies, thus rendering it as exceptional as it is typical: a sense of play. "Secret's" timpani stomp, electro squelches and general campiness are the lone vestiges on Iradelphic of the ludic mood so instrumental to Clark's previous albums, which were slyly mercurial even at their most sinister. Such is part of the producer's enduring appeal. What at first sounds deadly serious was liable to reveal itself, without warning, as a big joke. It was enough to carry us through even his more insufferable noodlings, especially on Turning Dragon and Totems Flare. But just as comedians are prone to avoid humor when taking dramatic roles, it seems that Chris Clark, in adopting an expressionistic, even romantic, sensibility, has divested of his trickster ways. That's too bad, because if Iradelphic's namesake Iradelphia is, as suspected, completely made up, then he of all artists should understand the potential for comedy in an elegy to its "neglected people".