Review Summary: Andy Stott's former labelmate returns from a three year hiatus with his most compelling work to date
Running ever so slightly shy of a full decade’s worth of material, Mark Stewart, by way of his alter ego Claro Intelecto, has spent his time with Ai Records, through Modern Love and now with Delsin perfecting his insularly brand of dub-tinged techno. Via two well-received LPs, a host of 12” releases and an acclaimed Warehouse Sessions
collection, Claro has become synonymous with the type of brooding, bass-laden affair that made an internet superstar out of former label-mate Andy Stott. Unlike Stott though, Stewart has always favored the gentler nuances; crisp and sharp as a knife, but also tender and rich like an enveloping warmness. Uniform only as an example of cohesiveness; for every release to bear his name there’s an unmistakable identity afoot, harnessed not just in the singular moment but richly applied throughout the full course. His process begins with an empty room which is then only sparsely filled, not to lessen the void but to act as reaction to his every action; it’s the casualty in that silent collision that gets etched into his recording, the manipulation of the invisible striking something very real.
Four years since his genre-collapsing Metanarrative
and now on vacation from Modern Love and the “knackered house” blues that dominated their output last year, Reform Club
is the sound of a man freshly invigorated, awash in new environments like a stranger in a new land. Perhaps his most sophisticated and immediate outing to date, it shows Stewart not just at his most focused and driven but, just like the archetypal wandering pilgrim it shows him attempting to carve out a piece of home from new vistas. Amidst the sweltering heat of his dense playing field, moments of singular beauty gently break their way into the throng: lonesome drawn-out strings find themselves soaring delicately above the pulsing, throbbing beast beneath them. Fighting their way up in a desperate war of concern, their intrusion feels oddly welcome; not as an act of contrast or reprieve, but as a suitable accompaniment to the weighty pads they float over, resonating under the obvious shock waves.
Claro has always sounded like one man recording in a steel pipe, the music echoing back to him and affecting not just timbre but weight, or perhaps, alternatively, as the sound of a man recording from the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. There’s a submerged quality to his work; dense and mercurial, constantly swelling and breaking like the roof of an ocean being pierced in a squall, floating in darkness while the world violently rumbles on above. So when these wisps of humanity appear they take on an even greater aspect, even at the cost of being nothing more than a distraction to the constant torrents: the dark melodies of ‘Night Of The Maniac’ and ‘Blind Side’, or the lonesome piano of ‘Still Here’ that doesn’t cry out with a note of despondency but rather one that aches for simple recognition. It asks to be noticed, and we as fellow pilgrims, take note.
Stewart returns to these small interludes of dynamic warmth often over the course of Reform Club
, always gently nudging beyond the dedicated personification of his deeply-rooted dust-laden techno, but he devotes a whole movement to it on album closer ‘Quiet Life’, with twinkling pianos and muted strings that crescendo into warm motifs that border on the religiously beatific. It’s an odd moment given the career that’s come before it, but it creates a striking image of a sunset over bedlam, his monochromatic scale now imbued with color, even if that particular spectrum might be a little muted and smudged. It feels almost like a reprise of album highlight ‘Scriptease’s lofty beginnings: those soft diluted strings poised for impact, balancing as they are on the edge of a knife before they find themselves swallowed whole into the abyss. And it’s ‘Scriptease’ that perhaps perfectly demonstrates Claro’s newfound sense of the mysterious and deeply profound, the way the beat forms itself into a thing of unbridled momentum, not galloping but always thrusting forward, yet constantly being grounded by its makers inhibitions. There’s a constant reigning in, a tightening of the bolts, that interestingly turns the track into an even greater wordless deadbolt of an anthem. It wisely abandons extravagance, and while there’s no deliberate transition there’s certainly a defining change in direction, a subtle left turn into the unknown.
And it’s that clear lack of one particular selling point, one fell moment of unsanctioned extravagant display that turns Reform Club
as a whole into the ultimate rallying point. Nothing here is left to waste, instead timely and efficiently tied into the greater picture, another cog in his industrial wheel. Unified yet still an incredible mark of individual vitality, Reform Club
feels not just the most assured and methodical of Claro’s works, but also the most approachable and open, perhaps even the most defining of his entries. Rich and intelligent, it’s a welcome blow of muted midnight compulsions, swimming in its own tides against the sea of bombast and extravagance that’s taken root in recent years. Underwater dance music at its finest.