Friday, May 18, 2012
OVERLOOKED CLASSICS: Clark - Body Riddle
By Danny Spiteri.
I've always been a little taken aback at how little attention this album has garnered among the music community. In my mind, it stands out not only as one of the finest triumphs to receive the ever so controversial IDM label, but also as a classic in the realm of electronic music as a whole. Perhaps it is a victim of poor timing; Body Riddle was released in 2006, approximately fifteen years after IDM became a concept, and a decade behind most of the genre's landmark albums (e.g. Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Music Has the Right to Children, Tri Repetae), so it is possible that the then-current musical landscape was populated generally by music fans simply uninterested in the kind of statement Clark had to make. Or maybe I got lucky, and this album just happens to speak directly to my tastes.
Regardless of the reason for Body Riddle's relatively overlooked status, it is, to put it frankly, one of my favorite albums of all time. Don't let the IDM tag fool you; despite seeing a release via the UK's revered Warp Records, this album does not resemble the music of the label's definitive artists very closely. Sure, it shares with such releases an ambition for pushing the boundaries of electronic music, as well as the evasion of easy classification that prompted the inception of the IDM term in the first place, but rather than safely follow the path paved by the genre's pioneers, it offers its own highly unique take. In particular, the sonic palette with which Body Riddle works is notably expansive. Over the course of its eleven songs, the album manages to cover woozy synths, evocative drones, blissful walls of sound, and moments of beautiful, understated tension without missing a beat. Clark even went as far as to learn to play acoustic drums in order to sample and use as the rhythmic foundations for the majority of Body Riddle. What's more, the quality of these sounds is incredible. Without falling prey to overproduction, Clark fine tunes each sound for ideal clarity, placing them appropriately in the mix to balance boldness with breathing room. This wealth of sonic ideas truly lends the album a sense of dynamic, one that allows it to touch upon a wide scope of emotions. Yet, miraculously, it maintains a binding cohesion throughout its 43 minutes. The songs flow into each other with seamless ease, and each one feels like an indispensable component of a maturely visualized bigger picture.
It's a praise that I can only apply selectively to the rest of Clark's work. His first two albums, which he released under his full name, Chris Clark, were promising, but not as original and fully realized as his music would later become. Although the first, the criminally short Clarence Park, was brimming with great ideas, it ultimately felt like an incomplete statement. With its followup, the darker Empty the Bones of You, Clark developed his thoughts more conclusively; however, although both records did carry sparks of his personal flair, he had yet to tap fully into his potential. His first post-Body Riddle release, the bombastic Turning Dragon, was relentlessly engaging, but lacked in dynamic. Totems Flare welcomed a number of additions into Clark's sound bank, even including his own voice, yet the individuality that came with it was at the sacrifice of a sense of focus. And Iradelphic, which is just over a month old at the time of this review, continued down the road of sonic variety, incorporating a refreshing use of acoustic instrumentation, but suffering from inconsistency. Despite their flaws, I enjoy all of these albums a lot, and I wouldn't go as far as to call Clark a one-album wonder. However, I consider Body Riddle to be unquestionably his magnum opus.
The album kicks off with "Herr Bar," an intricate exercise in stuttering drum patterns led by a chorus of chimes. The percussion keeps up an incessantly stimulating pace, immediately announcing the important role it will play throughout the rest of the album. Structurally, the song fluctuates through subtle valleys and mountainous peaks with a captivating sense of drama. It climaxes with a thick sheet of tasteful noise and pounding drums, then dissolves into an ambient interlude that leads perfectly into the next song.
"Frau Wav" starts as a continuation of the previous song's ambient outro, except it adds Clark's polyrhythmic drums into the equation. Shortly afterward, a somber string instrument rises to the top of the mix, combining with the rest of the atmosphere to give the song a drone-like quality. The percussion eventually cuts out entirely to allow layers of vast, airy fog and unidentifiable clicks take control of the song, but then reemerges with a steady, repetitive tap for a subdued finish. It took me many listens to fully appreciate this song, largely due to the low presence of obvious melodies, but my patience eventually paid off.
It's easy to view the next track, "Springtime Epigram," simply as an interlude, but it strikes me as something much more significant. Clocking in at just over a minute and a half, the song merely features a lone synthesizer that repeats a melody with virtually no variation. In theory, it is simple, but the longing evoked by the melody pairs up with the nostalgic tone of the synth to create an emotionally gripping product. Although the nostalgia doesn't necessarily call to mind any specific era, I can't shake from the song an association with memories of the past.
"Herzog" is another beatless synthesizer spotlight; however, contrarily to its predecessor, it presents itself in a much more urgent light. Driving arpeggiating synth melodies lead the song while swirls of amorphous electronic sound fill out the background. Nearly halfway through the track, the melody becomes brighter, and a metronomic pulse of organic clicks begins reinforcing the rhythm. As the song cycles through its two primary melodies with emphasized dynamic, what sounds like a set of unintelligible vocoder-affected voices occasionally shows up to provide light harmonies. The track then tapers off with an assembly of toneless, percussive noises. Despite the absence of percussion, the song succeeds in taking the listener on a thrilling ride.
The beats return on the fifth track, "Ted," for one of the album's most immediate moments. Instead of taking the form of the elaborately sampled acoustic drums that appear on most of the record, the percussion here tackles moderately simple rhythms. However, this more straightforward approach works to the song's advantage. It is one of the few tracks on the album that actually prompts dancing, yet its melodies are among the record's strongest, so "danceable" is not to be confused with "dumbed down." The tail end of the song welcomes a return of the skittering drums for a brief outro that foreshadows the next track.
"Roulette Thrift Run" is one of the least melodic songs on Body Riddle, but makes up for it with its disorienting atmosphere, catchy scat-like vocals, and especially exhilarating percussion. The unsettling sounds that have been brewing under the track throughout its first three minutes eventually take over, ending the song in a cacophony of atonal noises.
The seventh track, "Vengeance Drools," hits hard with a bold attitude, supplying a sinister result. The beat wouldn't feel out of place on a hip hop album, but this isn't your average boom bap. With Clark's surgeon-like sampling precision under its belt, it has no trouble packing the technical impressiveness that makes the percussion on Body Riddle so consistently exciting, yet it doesn't forgo an irresistible head-nodding sensibility. It is certainly commanding, but its the descending plink that acts as the melody which loans the song its menace. Around the track's halfway point, the melody switches up and takes a backseat to drums, which somehow trump those in the first half of the song in intensity. They then retreat and gradually fade out as an ominous array of drones closes out the track.
Similarly to "Springtime Epigram," the next song, "Dew on the Mouth," is a short, drumless piece that barely surpasses one minute in length. Like its aforementioned sibling, its place on the record feels more important than that of a standard interlude. Its melody is memorable, its atmosphere is alluringly eerie, and its ending transitions smoothly into the following track.
"Matthew Unburdened" sees the complex drumming reappear once again, this time for one of its most excellent achievements. It begins in an odd time signature that straddles tantalizingly close to 4/4 without quite settling into it, working the listener into a sense of insecurity. Meanwhile, dissonant piano chords trod lightly on top of it, which further adds to the unstable vibe. The drums soon pull back to create a suspenseful break, then the song truly opens up with a straightened out groove and absolutely gorgeous stringed instrument arrangements. These strings eventually consume the mix, creating a euphoric wall of lush sound. It plays out for nearly two minutes, then dies down to make way for the emergence of another off-kilter beat that carries the track to its ending.
In a way, the penultimate "Night Knuckles" is proof of Clark's compositional ability. With the clinking of a music box serving as the song's primary sonic tool, and only a few ornamental sounds providing extra color, its instrumentation is among the most minimal of Body Riddle's tracks. However, the assortment of compelling intertwining melodies and coherent harmonies allows the song to retain its emotional grasp with confident fluidity.
I could hardly ask for a better closer than "Autumnal Crush," a positively overwhelming seven and a half minutes. The song introduces itself with somber minor synthesizer chords backed by soft, shuffling percussion, which continue on as a slightly obscured voice mumbles the words "and I still miss you." The instruments then rise abruptly in volume, which marks the first major development in a gradual buildup. After a few more bars pass, the intensity of the instrumentation increases yet again, bringing the song into full force. As the chord progression repeats, the noise in the atmosphere becomes increasingly more prominent, until eventually, it takes the track into the album's most crushing moment yet. The phrase "wall of sound" is no longer sufficient; this is the destruction of that wall, a climactic explosion of compressed aural bliss. At its resolution, only the droning bass line and distant melody remain standing. The two repeat together in harmony as they steadily fade out and allow the song to approach silence, leaving the listener the last few minutes of the record to contemplate the experience in the company of achingly beautiful drones.
In just under three quarters of an hour, Body Riddle says more than many artists have said in their entire discographies. And like many of the albums I dearly respect, it feels less like a collection of songs and more like a cohesive story. As great stories often do, the record presents a setting too mesmerizing to be observed from a distance; rather, it transports the listener into its world, traveling through numerous twists and turns, yet refusing to let go.
(Does anyone else think this record is as good as I do? Am I just crazy?! You can let me know on Twitter.)