Legend has it that Chris Clark, man behind the dense, misshapen electronic dysfunction of Turning Dragon, performed at his first rave for Sheffield’s celebrated electro label Warp Records under the simple guise of ‘Chris from St. Albans’. For the release of his debut full-length, Clarence Park, he opted for the straightforward (less informative) choice of merely his full name; the first half of which he had dropped by the time his third, Body Riddle, did the same three years later in 2006. If this gives the impression of a man fixated with reinvention, however subtle, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
Because where Body Riddle is a record of trippy, hypnotic electronica laid over tricksy beats, its successor is a pummelling brute of urgent crunches and scrapes. Body Riddle moved by melodic, if terse, coercion; Turning Dragon by sheer force of onslaught. And the result, initially, is that it’s a hell of a lot harder to listen to. There’s no more clouds of synth or idling glockenspiels; gone is the drum kit enlisted to entail organicity. Clark’s fourth is less concerned with soundscapes, more with punching beats and sweaty rhythmic transformation. It’s very much more a dance album, grounded in driving beats and recurring electronic mash-ups, though it remains resolutely undanceable.
Despite the departure from an organic rhythm section, Turning Dragon is a far more percussive album, almost entirely led by Clark’s beats. Whereas on previous offerings they had served more as accompaniment to melodies, setting the pace if not the style, here most of the eleven cuts are orchestrated by whatever crunch, click. or clack to which Clark hands the reins, leaving all other elements clamouring to keep up. Opener “New Year Storm” is a fine example of this, beginning with a scuzzy robotic march that persists throughout, throbbing away beneath the coming-and-going sequence of dissonant techno squalls. Sliding into “Volcan Veins”, the theme continues, with another pulsing rhythm providing the backdrop to all manner of disparate glitches and throbs, as well as a barely comprehensible female vocal.
What strikes you about the opening gambits of Turning Dragon is their sheer density. There’s very little breathing space in the early stages, such is the scope and volume of the sonic elements crammed into first five or so cuts. This doesn’t always pay dividends; “Truncation Horn”, for one, is a little too disconnected to coherently accommodate everything thrown into its melting pot. But elsewhere, it makes for a fulfilling experience to unravel the myriad layers and discover the microcosmic melodies, sonic variety, and meticulous arrangement within what is ostensibly abrasive, dirty, instrumental electro.
There are forays into less uncompromising territory, too, particularly as the album progresses. Indeed, if the frantic ticking of “Radiation Clutch” marks Turning Dragon‘s half-way point, then it is the latter half which is the more forgiving. Though “BEG” recalls the opening 4/4 beatings of “New Year Storm” with intensified freneticism, it is encased between the sparse reverberations of “Hot May Slides” and the vibrancy of “Penultimate Persian”‘s ever-morphing synth-led journeying.
But Turning Dragon is certainly a more demanding record than Body Riddle and many of those let loose by contemporaries like Boards of Canada or Aphex Twin. It’s a lot more mechanical than its predecessor — colder, less organic — and won’t allow you lay back and let it wash over you, choosing instead to pound and pummel until attention is fully acquired. But then, better to reinvent than to stagnate, as well Clark knows, hence why the disc delivered to my door, though lacking in the easy warmth of its predecessor, is infinitely more satisfying than Body Riddle II would have been. And so while Turning Dragon can frustrate, or even tire, on first exposure, perseverance unravels the disorientation to reveal a multi-faceted record of intricate arrangement. It’s this meticulousness and attention-to-detail on Clark’s part that makes Turning Dragon take a while to sink in, but ultimately, it’s what makes it such a joy as well.