Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of original soundtracks divorced from the film or TV show that they are meant to accompany can be tricky business. Should the music speak for itself without any external context? Should the merits of the music be considered in light of the non-musical medium that the music was designed around? I made it a point not to watch any episodes of The Last Panthers before listening to Clark’s soundtrack. Indeed, I know next to nothing about the show. It seems to me that as it is my job to offer my opinion on this particular piece of music, the music alone should be my focal point. Track names like “Back to Belgrade” and “Strangled to Death in a Public Toilet” give ambiguous, tantalizing suggestions as to the plot lines they soundtrack, allowing the listener to make up her own story. While this may be an amusing imaginative exercise, the question remains: is the music good?
Yes it is. This should not come as any major shock to anyone who has followed Clark’s career over the years. While Clark has kept one foot firmly planted in techno and related dance-oriented genres, his musical scope has always extended much further than the vast majority of techno out there. Back in 2001 when he was still calling himself Chris Clark, he offered a fairly danceable debut on Warp Records that was somewhat at odds with the more experimental mood of that label at that time. Clark has continued to develop his sound in the intervening years and his music has only become more interesting. His self-titled 2014 record showed Clark firing on all cylinders, letting his techno leaning thumb and repeat, while opening up the backdoor to his sound to let in all manner of natural ambience and atmosphere.
Although The Last Panthers is less dense and immersive than Clark, it is perhaps just as ambitious for a musician who has always hung his hat within the realm of dance music. The Last Panthers eschews the thumping beats of his back catalog for open, airy compositions and more traditional instrumentation. String sections moan, wind rattles the microphones, and pianos tinkle out of the darkness, creating a lovely backdrop for whatever is supposed to be taking place on screen. Clark’s dance-centric stuff has always reminded me somewhat of Aphex Twin’s early techno-based material, but here Clark seems to be taking cues from a very different page of the Aphex playbook, Selected Ambient Works II in the quieter moments, and Drukqs when Clark busts out his creaky old piano. Clark’s stylistic shift works well on its own, but I am sure it works even better when placed in the context of the actual show.
The Last Panthers will probably not either amaze or horrify long-time fans, but it does prove that Clark is quite capable of working outside of his comfort zone. For ambient electronic music to really hit hard, it needs to be dense and aggressive, which is not necessarily appropriate for a soundtrack. While The Last Panthers is certainly not ‘background music’ it is restrained and relatively sparse. This is music that is intended to serve a purpose beyond the music itself, which is all well and good, but it does not quite reach the levels of his genre-stretching LPs. Clark is a musician, not just a DJ or a producer, so it is great to see him show alternate sides of his capabilities; however, I will be keen to see his next strange, hypnotic, danceable record when it comes along.