As a mainstay of Warp Records, Clark returns with a more accessible, more human album that still reinforces his outré techno dreams and arpeggiated fantasies.
Clark is a torchbearer for his label, Warp, a former vanguard that outlasted its own revolution to become an immutable status quo. He and labelmate Bibio interviewed each other for The Quietus in 2009 for the label’s twentieth anniversary, and Clark offhandedly related a creation myth for his music: “There was so much rave stuff you’d listen to and you could imagine bobbing about to it, but [Black Dog] just had more depth and layers of feelings to it.” Presumably, he meant Bytes, from Warp’s genre-defining early-nineties compilation series, Artificial Intelligence. He spent the next fifteen years imprinting his MPC jams, analog synths, and samples of his drumming and acoustic guitar onto the sound.
Still, synthesizing a neat developmental arc for Clark is an exercise in meaningless distinction. His nine albums touch on many varieties of techno in no particular order. In fact, disorder is his medium. Instead of measuring their relative pH levels of jungle and garage, it’s best to assess each album this way: Is it More Clark or Less Clark than the last one? More Clark means manic and malfunctioning; Less Clark means accessible and coherent. His best records, like 2006’s Body Riddle and 2014’s Clark, are More Clark and Less Clark at once, balancing detailed, chaotic sonic events in impregnable forms (a.k.a. Just Enough Clark). His weakest records, clustered in a slump between those milestones, tend to be way More Clark than a person could handle. But isn’t too vivid a voice about the mildest flaw an artist can have?
Death Peak is Clark’s first record that’s almost completely Less Clark. While it doesn’t have quite the artistic heft of his self-titled album, the bright, punched-out shapes are more fun to listen to, with an emotional accessibility that makes me imagine a kind of post-rave Eluvium. Don’t worry, it’s still Clark enough: as usual, his tracks sound like jittery, rusted iron machines that somehow produce long rainbows of melody, and there are many moments when the tracks cling to the edge of control. “Hoova,” where burned curls of distortion eddy around colossal drums, is eventually seized by a mad, accelerating whir that, just when it seems about to explode, expertly disperses. “Slap Drones” is technically aggressive and emotionally dry, the kind of thing Clark has sometimes filled whole albums with, and “Un U.K.” gets lost in ten minutes of lovely channel surfing, but he had the courtesy to put it at the end. But more often, there’s nothing cerebral about these arpeggiated fantasies, lushly produced, full of tones that pulse in soft colors.
Clark, whose wilder cyborg music courts post-human themes, also integrates the human voice more thoroughly than ever before. He relies on a chorus of what kind of sounds like Oompa Loompas in Mordor—a little silly, a little evil, and quite grand. But there’s never a sense of a single human speaker; the voices simply clad the well-made grooves with warming polyphony and rhythmic accents. Still, their usage is very songful, especially on the radiant “Peak Magnetic,” which feels effortless in flight even when a turbine engine cranks up inside its sparkling trills.
Too bad Clark already used Body Riddle as the title of his supreme head record, because Death Peak is some of the most engaging body music he’s ever made. From the infinite boogie of “Butterfly Prowler,” where all the shifts and drops land right where they belong, to the show-stopping “Catastrophe Anthem,” which sounds like someone taught an A.I. Colin Stetson and blew it up to M83-size, it's a multicolored flood of effortless release and actual human feelings, an assuredly musical record that continues a modern streak of Peak Clark.