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Death Peak (Warp)

Clark to me by now surely feels like the embodiment of Warp Records’
legacy all wrapped up in one creative mind. His debut, Clarence Park,
surfaced in 2000 at a time that Warp was outgrowing its rave and acid
house roots and exploring quite varied terrain, dipping into
psychedelic rock with Broadcast while Autechre forged new paths in
so-called IDM and experimental electronic listening music. Chris
Clark’s knack for sculpting sound and synthesis makes him feel like a
kindred spirit to revered tinkerers like Aphex Twin, Autechre, or
Mark Bell (LFO), but his restlessness and tendency to amp it up with
a more, more, more vibe perhaps feels closest to the first solo album
on Warp by Jamie Lidell (released way before Lidell embraced a focus
on R&B pastiche); it skitters with nervous energy, chaotic
layering, a clear love letter to sonic experimentation. And yet
Clark’s music can often even have the same playful energy of a
somewhat novelty act like Plone, whose often overlooked For Beginner
might be the closest thing to a cuteness explosion to surface
on Warp. But what’s made Clark’s music so compelling over nine albums
is his unwillingness to stay still for very long. He seems to be an
artist for whom experimentation is a crucial part of making, wherein
even embracing convention — the acoustic guitar work that informs
2012’s outstanding Iradelphic album, for example — sends his
creativity in a new and focused direction. It’s a sharp contrast up
against 2008’s Turning Dragon, an absolutely pummeling, raucous
techno album that shows off Clark’s more bangin’, rougher edges with
style. And yet his most recent release prior to Death Peak was The
Last Panthers
, a series of cinematic instrumentals that largely
eschewed any of the angular form-making and wobbly synthesis that
characterizes much of his varied repertoire.

With that hefty prologue
out of the way, what then of Death Peak itself? My first impression
of it is that it feels like quintessential Clark, and yet it feels
more of a hybrid of his self-titled album released in 2014 and the
understated beauty of his score to The Last Panthers, each wherein Clark smoothed
over some of his more abrasive tendencies and delivered a more
polished, easier body of electronica. One noteworthy changeup in
Clark’s sonic arsenal is the addition of children’s choir on several
of these pieces, beginning with the lilting opener, “Spring But
Dark” (an appropriate title). “Butterfly Prowler” is one of the
spryest dancefloor workouts to come from Clark over the years, led by
a steady four-to-the-floor kick and a warbling, jaunty synth pattern,
a trajectory continued with “Peak Magnetic,” a full-on anthem
that continues to burn at a good clip. “Hoova” flirts with rave
hoovers just as Clark has toyed with and often turned on their side
dancefloor conventions over the years, with staccato vocal bits that
recall Holly Herndon’s vocal pointillism. “Slap Drones” again
brings the party, with a thick room reverb on everything that makes
it feel like a live take as bass synth stabs and crude scrapes of
noise propel it forward. But Death Peak takes a turn after these
busier, fuller arrangements, and largely bids adieu to the dancefloor
as the remaining four cuts explore headier territory. “Aftermath”
glides on airy wordless vocals, hammer dulcimer, and angelic cascades
of sonic filigrees and flourishes, before making way for “Catastrophe
Anthem,” an oddly appropriate name for the triumphant, soaring and
yet dire arrangement herein. The children’s choir comes to the fore
with a slightly haunting line: “We are your ancestors,” just as
the music expands and swells to swallow the scenery. It’s best
experienced in one solid go, treating it like the mountain climb that
it is. Its upbeat beginning and ramp up toward something more
climactic, followed by a prolonged denouement into cinematic beauty,
it all feels like a narrative that we collectively experience as
listeners. What Death Peak might lack in its initial impressions as a
new entry from Clark — not feeling like a complete reinvention,
necessarily (nor should it need to) — it more than makes up for in its tightly crafted
journey from one side of the mountain to the other. For all its
twists and turns, Death Peak plays through with immersive ease and
enjoyment. In other words: Good stuff as usual from Mr. Clark,
another highly recommended album.

Buy it: Bleep