Review Summary: Ascend the Death Peak: a collection of some of the finest moments Clark's ever produced, mixed in with some unfortunately less than fine ones.
You know that veteran IDM producer, Chris Clark, is at his best when he makes you stop and wonder, "now just how in the f u c k
is he doing that"" Whether it be a massive and uniquely textured synthesizer tone, a deft, intricate melody, a tricky rhythm, or some combination thereof, it's his undoubted specialty. After his last, self-titled record wound up one of the best and biggest in his sprawling catalogue in 2014, the Warp Records mainstay had us fairly confident that he would be able to once again conjure a myriad of such moments on his forthcoming full-length, Death Peak
. This is largely due to the fact that, in the interim, he's been far from stagnant, producing an excellent scoring of the unfortunately overlooked European crime-noir series, The Last Panthers
, as well as dropping a couple of self-challenge type EP's and one-off singles. So, leading up to this ambitiously titled new album, all of the Clark-ducks seemed to be aligned in a neat little row to suggest a possible second high-water mark in his 15+ year career -- the first being a result of his undisputed magnum opus, Body Riddle
. And that is just what Clark gave us. Well -- almost. With Death Peak
, what he ultimately delivered was a collection of some of the absolutely finest moments he's ever
produced, mixed in with some, let's say, less fine ones, in short.
It starts out promisingly enough, though, with "Spring But Dark." At 1:18, it's somewhat of a shy twin to the opener of Clark
, "Ship is Flooding," in that it is brief, to-the-point, rousing, and with its eerie child-choir chants, clock ticking and menacing rumbles, it properly sets the stage for what, on first listen, may have well been the beginning to a truly earth-shattering record. Oh, and, regarding that peculiar child choir: they'll be back. The human voice was meant to be a central theme (truth be told, something the music press put a little too much emphasis on leading up to the release), a la Tim Hecker from last year, but really, the addition more or less ends up but another otherworldly sound in his already incredibly idiosyncratic palette, with the exception that it does possess the ability to amplify the grandiosity of certain, more climactic movements. Oh yeah, and there are adult singers, too. But I digress. Alas, unfortunately for Death Peak
, any anticipation built up by the intro track, or by those neatly organized, aforementioned Clark-ducks is immediately squandered by the astoundingly underwhelming "Butterfly Prowler." It just might be the worst track in the listing, and what a horrible placement for it to be second up. I'm still not sure whether the lead melody is too simple, just bad
, or both; and the rhythm section is most certainly far too timid. However much fun Clark must have had composing it really does not translate into that of a listening experience. In arguably the most pivotal slot in the listing, it just ends up a disappointment.
The following track, "Peak Magnetic" (a very odd choice of a teaser-single, by the way), does a decent job of picking up the pieces. Though it does suffer from a similar sort of timidity at first, once a phalanx of rhythmically wavering synths, and later, a grumbling bass-synth roll in, we know that Clark is back on track. And off the back of that momentum, comes the truly monstrous "Hoova," which immediately storms the premises with thunderous, stomping bass-kicks and growling jet-engines that promptly blast off into the stratosphere. A glitchy, labyrinthine melody then joins in to mount pressure and guide the track into a dizzying plateau, wherein some vocals are brilliantly employed, being allowed to saunter and explore the tense space he's crafted. Clark then somehow manages to effectively beat EDM at its own game when he eventually shifts into high-gear, unleashing towering synthesizers so full and rich sounding, they would put most all conventional electronic producers to utter shame. Combine this with a hypnotic, rapid flickering and a bright, unnameable sound spinning fervently into the ether, you have the climax of one the best stand-alone Clark songs ever. The following denouement is then comprised of an agile breakbeat that transitions into a majestic, swirling ambient section that allows for some well-deserved decompression. The first half ends on a fairly weak note, though, with the following cut, "Slap Drones," which is also much more relaxed in its approach by comparison. Though its rhythmic bursts of static appear a promising premise at first, the simple idea ends up repeating in one form or another for the majority of the track, far overstaying its welcome. In the last section he tries to salvage things with some much needed variation, but it's unfortunately not enough to fully recover from the relative dullness that preceded it.
The sombre harpsichord interlude, "Aftermath," with its chilling background choir, serves as somewhat of a bridge between the scatterbrained first half and the much more focused and overall cohesive second. It marks the beginning of our ascension up the actual Death Peak -- a concept that, truthfully, has been all but completely nonexistent until now, but according to Clark himself, was integral in guiding his inspiration and construction of the entire record -- as if, up to this point, we've only been flirting with the idea of our impending climb, excitedly making our way through meadows as we approach its base; as if "Hoova" was our first true, detailed consideration of the weighty task ahead during a fever dream, the night before the ascent. Looking at the album through this lens, "Aftermath" is representative of our last moments before we plunge into the thick of it -- our last chance to turn back. And accordingly, the following track, "Catastrophe Anthem," documents our first steps as we begin to scale Death Peak
's face. While, appropriately, not riveting right off the bat, it steadily and surely intensifies as it progresses, featuring some impressive MIDI chops, a haunting and somewhat confounding passage of children chanting, "we are your ancestors," repeatedly, in conjunction with an enormous, textured synthesizer that later consumes the mix. It transitions effortlessly into the comparatively high-tempo, "Living Fantasy," wherein the tension dial is cranked further upward, decorated by light, glittering notes that dance instantaneously from ear to ear, as well as some rapid, desperate-sounding vocal notes and handclaps that punctuate the end of the track.
Until, finally, we've reached it. The Death Peak. It's nothing short of spectacular, either -- the 10 minute finale, "Un U.K.," is simply monumental at its climax, and, once again, encloses two of the best Clark moments ever. It begins benignly enough, though, with a brilliant, but fairly relaxed melody comprised of pitch-shifted female vocal samples, backed by an unassuming, thudding bass-kick -- as if we're anxiously but optimistically waking on the morning of the final push. It then begins to gather momentum as it transitions into a Tron-like synth melody, gaining strength as it bides its time. Then, suddenly and abruptly, the floor drops out from beneath us, and the mix begins writhing and convulsing in a truly foreboding harbinger of the terror that is about to ensue. For the following drop, you simply need to hear it to understand; no words on this screen can aptly describe it. This is precisely one of those quintessentially Clark moments that I outlined earlier, in that you have absolutely zero idea how he's doing what he's doing. In a piece for Line Of Best Fit, he breaks down the passage, stating that it's comprised of "about 35 EDM tracks time-stretched and put through guitar pedals and tape, plus a multi-layered field recording of wasps tuned into diatonic sync with the track. At some point I got bored of human voice and thought, 'f u c k it -- let’s get wasp-core.' For me it’s all about inducing a vivid shock, extending the boundary of what can be structurally achieved in a piece of music." And the result is, well, something disturbingly wondrous. Then, rapid, sporadic kicks alongside cold, spectral voices provide a brief respite, but before long Clark dips into a nose-dive once again, unleashing yet another, entirely unique, ineffable drop that serves to reinforce the horrific tension that its predecessor so firmly established. At around six minutes in, though, the track stumbles to somewhat of an awkward halt. It does later unfurl into a sweeping, gorgeous conclusion -- a blissful reward for seeing the ascent through -- but the abrupt transition from all-time-high tension back down to ground-level, during such a crucial climax, is an unequivocal disappointment, unfortunately. It seems as though, after building up such a grandiose atmosphere over three tracks, he just couldn't find a way to segue back into a regular sort of energy. Admittedly, though, I can't say I wholly blame him.
But it is in this suite -- from "Aftermath," through to the climax of "Un U.K. -- that this album truly shines. The way one track's momentum and overarching feeling lend themselves to and support that of the next is what Death Peak
could have used substantially more of throughout its run-time. Had the first half successfully employed this and improved its spotty consistency, we may well have bore witnessed to one of the finest albums of 2017; one that would have likely been propagated across the breadth of the internet much in the way his last did. Instead, what we got was still a great record, but, ultimately, one for the fans. One that may possibly to go down as a waste of incredible potential, but will be celebrated by many all the same. Though he may falter from time to time, at this point, it seems outright impossible for him to completely let us down, alongside the ever-looming possibility that his best album has yet to come. And so, once again -- we wait.