Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Album Review: Chris Clark - Empty The Bones Of You

(Warp, 2003)

Album reviews in the mainstream media have become interchangeable with press releases. I mean this partly in terms of the invariable praise terrible records seem to receive, but for the sake of this argument, I'm referring to publications that only deal with the latest releases, and serve only to publicise the newness of the music rather than any qualities it may hold

On last year's Resonance FM blog documentary (available here, thanks to Woebot), Simon Reynolds spoke about how we consume music in an anachronistic way, and I know my own consumption of music follows this pattern - when a record was released is almost entirely meaningless, especially in today's constantly recycling, self-referential music world. Today, a genre can effectively fall asleep for years, only to be woken up when it has regained significance. The influence of the internet on how we consume music has only served to enhance this, as the limited print run is no longer the issue it used to be - once a track is available, it is always available. Newness now refers to when you download a track, not when it was released, and as individuals will download different tracks at different times, basing your magazine on one rigid release schedule seems narrow minded to say the least

So why does the music press insist on maintaining its outdated method of reviewing records? In his article in issue 92 of frieze, Jörg Heiser describes the despair he felt at the dichotomy created by the pressure from the industry and press to review records immediately on the one hand, and the time required to intimately get to know a record, and thus review it adequately

This isn't the only problem with a media that only focuses on new records. With the plethora of records released every day, and those already available, it is likely that some amazing material will get overlooked and not receive the coverage it deserves. With no-one looking backwards, these records will go on being ignored

(Alternative title for this entry: How I Tried To Salvage Some Credibility For Another Curiously Out-of-Date Review). Enjoy...


Empty The Bones Of You was the album where Chris Clark moved away from the scratchy acid of tracks like Diesel Raven (available here) and the borrowed Autechre sounds, towards his own sound. Crunchy, almost oral percussive sounds, long, clean kicks and bursts of reverb surrounding the melody make up the bulk of this album. Apparently using a dictaphone to sample everything and anything to create a library of samples to use in his work, this album retains the aesthetic of the tape machine - the crunchy sounds could be the stop and start of a playing tape, and the huge reverb at times sounds similar to the 'tape music' of musique concrete

The first track, Indigo Optimus, bridges the gap between albums, drawing most of its sounds from Empty The Bones Of You, but retaining the long melody of his earlier work. However, rather than keeping the melody flat, it moves in and out, sometimes quiet, sometimes dominant, and this gives the stuttery beat more attack and a sense of dynamism and drive. There isn't much structure to the track, and this means it can appear to meander a bit rather than go anywhere, but this aside it's one of the strongest tracks on the album. A feature used here and then again at various points in the album is to have an undisguised, recognizable sound, in the this case seagulls, to anchor the tracks in a specific environment. This makes them highly evocative, although you could argue it also restricts them to an extent

Holiday as Brutality is the first of the tracks (and not the last) that really don't match the quality of the better tunes. The Sun Too Slow, and Betty compete with it for worst track on the album. The latter two are pointless ambient soundscapes that bring nothing to the album, and all three tracks are boring. The only positive point is their positioning as brackets surrounding the quality tracks. They don't interfere too much with the enjoyment of the middle section where the real gems lie, allowing them to easily be ignored

Empty The Bones Of You is a brilliant name for the third track, as the hollow, reverberating crunchy sounds evoke the brittleness of bones. As the scraping noises pass through your head it feels as if your bones are being cleaned from the inside out (listen to it on headphones if you think I'm talking shit...)

Here begins the outstanding part of the album. The next 6 tracks (7 if I'm feeling generous) are the most accessible while at the same time the ones with the longest appeal (although Tyre sounds a little like a BoC remix of Yann Tiersen, but I won't go into that...) The sad twinkling melody on Tycan combined with the recognizable sound of the firework gives the track a memory/nostalgia context - a sad onlooker to what should be a celebration. The wide-eyed awe associated with fireworks is captured beautifully by the longer, less distinct sound. The firework is an interesting reference to use in music, with parallels between dark (night)/light (explosion) and silence/music, and this makes the music all the more evocative

Wolf was the first track I heard on the album, albeit in a different incarnation, on the Advance Listening Opportunity compilation. At first I dismissed it as white noise and ignored it, but after a couple of listens it grew on me. It's probably the most conventional of all the tracks despite its fuzziness - it builds and drops like any number of more mainstream instrumental hip hop tracks (RJD2 etc), and the fuzz just serves to hide this conventionality - but it works really well. The album needs a few catchy numbers on it, and to have one where it's obscured by white noise is a nice way to keep the album interesting. Epic white noise pop... awesome

If I said earlier that the next 6 tracks were outstanding, its really the next two that steal the show. Slow Spines was on the Ceramics Is The Bomb EP with a different ending, but this is the better version. It's inch perfect, culminating in the late attack, lo-fi ringtone melody that is pure, mouth-watering ear candy. The multi-noise sounds that fall around the beats give it a hip hop feel (think Dre's claps... did I just say that?). This ending, complete with retro drum sounds and Santa's sleigh-bell-rhythm high hats, and that melody beats the ambient ending on the EP hands down

The huge reverberating melody sounds juxtaposed with the thin, viscous beat sounds on Umbilical Hut balances perfectly. This track carries with it the melancholy I mentioned earlier, but it's the kind of beautiful-sad rather than the despairing kind. My only problem is the somewhat clumsy beat towards the end of the track that spoils the subtle balance achieved earlier

Farewell Track and Gavel: (Obliterated) are somewhat featureless in comparison and verge on being a little boring. The dream-like ambience at the end of Farewell Track risks dragging the previous tracks into its quagmire of slight cheesiness, spoiling their genuine effect. Gavel: (Obliterated) is more aggressive, and sounds more like his racket of a live show (although it's possible too melodic if my memory serves me correctly...)

Gob Coitus, as its fuck-you title suggests, is also quite aggressive (until around 2:20 when it all gets a little Yann Tiersen again...) Not sure this track was needed, as the sound is starting to get a little tired now - and this brings me to a problem with the album as a whole - are the sounds varied enough? A feature of a number, if not most 21st century electronic releases seems to be sticking rigidly to a tightly defined sound palette, and refusing to stray from it too far. Whether or not this has something to do with constructing a recognisable 'brand', whereby people can listen to a track and immediately say 'That's Chris Clark' is up for question (although one could argue this is little more than ego-massaging), but I think it's had a detrimental effect on music. You don't have to release the same track with minor differences 10+ times on the same CD for it to qualify as an album - where's the variety?

Rant aside, Empty The Bones Of You has some amazing moments, mainly when it is distantly evocative. Imagine your memory was stored in your bones. Empty The Bones Of You then does exactly that, crunching and scraping its way through your skeleton, dredging up both those memories you'd like to remember and those you'd prefer to forget, just as a BoC record might, but very much in Chris Clark's own style. It's talked about as his coming of age album, and I think that's exactly what it is, and now he's arrived, I'm looking forward to what he produces next

nice review. although i really love the park alot, i started to get to know and love bones a lot more recently. i remember how dissapointed i was when i first heard it.
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