Turning Dragon

(Warp; 2008)

By Joel Elliott | 28 April 2008

Clark is no minimalist. Too sonically overloaded to fit in with the sleek spaciousness of newer house yet too close to the 4/4 template to be unproblematically characterized as IDM, Turning Dragon is something of a bastard child of techno. It’s almost like he took the most dissonant noise and improbable rhythms and chisselled them into a dance record. Not that it always succeeds in that vein, but even when it doesn’t it fails magnificently. Just like it’s sexier when you’re tripping all over yourself playing Dance Dance Revolution, Turning Dragon‘s lumbering properties make it seem like that much more of a delicate act of precision.

While genre distinctions are nearly irrelevant with this kind of music I have to admit that Turning Dragon skirts dangerously close to one of my most loathed of techno sub-genres: hardcore. Or perhaps to get closer to the root of my reservations: this is pounding, brazen, shamelessly impudent stuff, and part of me wants to hate it for just that reason. These are the same reservations I had about Amon Tobin’s recent Foley Room (2007): the maximization of sensory response is the goal of people like Michael Bay; I want no part of his shit, and I want no part of music that hits the same buttons. I don’t want to be the Maxwell Audio guy, my hair blowing back from the force of the speakers. Also: my equipment isn’t that good; that fidelity would go to waste anyway.

I like Turning Dragon better than Foley Room because of an important distinction: there’s the machine that carves out its linear path of destruction but there’s also the wake (those innocently bystanding cars in Bay films), the sparks and debris the machine leaves behind. Clark seems to focus as much, if not more, on the latter. You can feel the amount of work that must have gone into making this music; it’s like watching someone carve a swan out of ice with a chainsaw. Take “Volcan Veins”: on the one hand all lightning-quick breaks and twisted vocal manipulations, it seems to revel in the days when making electronic music still involved a lot of bodily movement (also the days when DJ’s were more likely to make Star Trek references). Then about halfway through the track becomes more focussed on the static and distortion that spills out of its spiky synths, while the non-rhythmic toms suggest that it’s what lies in between the beats that actually matters.

And Clark knows how to work a narrative into his tracks: witness the mind-blowing “For Wolves Crew” which allows for constant diversions where the beat almost submerges into creaky symphonic grace notes, an elastic vocal sample, crashes of sheet metal, and several other left field noises. Even here, Clark works it into a climax, involving an ascending synth line and some of the best record-scratching I’ve heard in ages. These beats aren’t typically very complex—although it would be hard to turn the machine gun pulse of “Penultimate Persian” into a bad track—but it’s what he does with them that counts. In this sense, keeping a beat throughout a track isn’t about laziness or dancefloor-compatability, but about how much can be done within limited parameters.

Around the middle of the album Clark actually does dip into more atmospheric techno: “Gaskarth/Cyrk Dedication,” with its crisp clicks, could be something from Kompakt remixed with Clark’s trademark breakbeats overtop. It almost seems like he’s working at two different paces and, as a result, it ends up being one of the less successful tracks here. It’s a well-earned break though, and proof that he’s as capable of weightless movement as grinding, harsh rhythms. “Ache of the North” fares better with a beat that cuts like sharp wind and gorgeous sustained synths that glide overtop like early Autechre. It’s these little ethereal moments that stick out on Turning Dragon: fallout on the periphery of a relentless, shredding beast.