Warp is selling Plaid's latest, Spokes, as a return to the moody, shimmering roots of the electronic duo's previous incarnation, the Black Dog. The Black Dog was one of the 1990s' most engaging electronic outfits. Pioneers of the IDM scene, the Black Dog eventually went on to produce remixes for the likes of Bjork and Ned's Atomic Dustbin, while also releasing almost a half dozen of their own LPs in that time period. As the decade grew to a close, however, Ed Handley and Andy Turner turned their attention to their Ken Downie-less side project, Plaid. Plaid ended up becoming a more melodic, quirky, and dynamic outlet for the two, and they've found much critical and commercial success on Warp Records ever since.
The duo got off to a great start with two stellar releases in the late '90s. 1998's Not for Threes and 1999's Rest Proof Clockwork were two of the most melodic and lush IDM releases to hit the market in years. Wildly inventive, Plaid was at the forefront of the genre and their frequent collaborations with Bjork further heightened their IDM-with-heart persona.
However, the eternal confounding dilemma to any IDM artist must be this: How do you make a career out of this kind of music? What makes any artist's career satisfying over the long haul is the ability to adapt and change one's sound, while keeping the hallmarks of that sound consistent enough so as not to lose sight of what makes the group special to begin with. How far can IDM take this, though? So much of what makes the genre appealing are not so much the compositions themselves, but the textures and noises that make up those compositions. And when the textures and noises dry up, what then? Fortunately for Plaid, that has yet to happen, but on this, their fourth full-length in five years, signs of age are starting to make themselves apparent.
Plaid opens things up with a rare operatic, Orbital-like vocal sample on the album's first cut, "Even Spring". Mesmerizing and complex, the vocal eventually fades away into the kind of squelchy synths and clickety-clack beat boxes that Plaid is so well-known for. It's an exciting first cut, and bodes well for what lies ahead. Second cut, "Crumax Rins", starts off quietly with alien-sounding synth beds before the clickety-clack rhythms again invade for an all-too-familiar foray into abstract sound and vaguely melodic keyboard nuances. It's a Plaid track, plain-and-simple. Nothing to disappoint, but nothing to shock.
"Upona" gets things back on track with its raindrops-on-wet-pavement percussion and furiously ebbing synths. The track consistently builds in momentum and complexity before bottoming out in furiously ferocious fashion.
"Zeal" is the album's most Orbital-inspired cut, as its dulcimer-like rhythms sound like they could be the lost backing track to "The Box". But Handley and Turner make a complete 180 with the pretty, subdued, "B Born Droid", later on. A haunting little tune, "B Born Droid" sounds as if a hundred tiny electronic cats got together to form a choir, and then ran it all through a vocoder. If that sounds like an inspiration to you, then you should feel right at home here.
The most traditionally Plaid cut on the whole record is "Get What You Gave". Quirky rhythmic dynamics and steel-drum sounds collide to create a fun and bouncy little gem of an IDM composition. It's what Plaid does best: a vaguely melodic composition that holds the listener's attention throughout its length simply for its sheer playfulness. One gets the sense that anything might happen in the next moment and it's that tension that makes Plaid so consistently listenable.
All in all, Plaid has made another extremely well-produced little electronic record. Do you need it in your collection? Absolutely not. Is there room for it in a large collection? Maybe. There's no doubt that Plaid have made better albums. Rest Proof Clockwork and Not for Threes are both better LPs for the long haul, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there is anything particularly wrong with Spokes. I don't know that this is really a return to the sound of the Black Dog, but it's a darkly intriguing album that is another notch in the belt of a fine career for England's reigning kings of melodic IDM.