Chris Clark is concerned with progressing. His latest three-years-in-the-making Warp LP, Totems Flare is crafstmanlike in every detail, and is spurred on by a palpable need to grapple with the forces that brought it into being. It’s a passionately abstract album, one that has a fractal intelligence rather than a tendency to sprawl. Clark’s respect for his precursors is clearly a motivation here, even if little of the sound is recognizable apart from a general IDM hyperactivity. Like a second-generation graffiti dude who yearns to push things forward even as he loses interest in and grasp of his relevance, the songs here are wrought to the point of being indecipherable at first glance.
Totems Flare makes only insular sense. Each song undergoes at least one complete breakdown, sometimes to the detriment of momentum. But looking for that album-length sense in the two song-songs here (cemetery funk “Growls Garden” and jock jam “Rainbow Voodoo”), you begin to feel that the joke’s on you. As with graf-for-graf’s-sake, legibility can seem like a condescending gesture when an artist has figured out that they prefer exploding things rather than effecting the same gestures. What’s more interesting than the explosions and implosions that laboriously bring tracks to a halt — first track “Outside Plume” never catches up to itself, giving the impression that Clark has left his palette on top of the painting — is the sense of weird binary decay. Totems Flare is filled with chirpy, post-rave 8-bit synths that sound under duress, like they’ve been bitcrushed or buried under damp leaves til they exhale an autumnal corona.
Whatever end-of-an-era wistfulness is being mourned or simply digested in those sounds doesn’t feel similar to Burial’s orphan broadcast somberness or Zomby’s rave reenactment. It feels more as if Clark is trying to figure out his own relationship to IDM, not only as an unfortunately named genre but as a slippery and temporary assemblage that was useful for developing certain ideas and which also became bogged down in its own baroqueness. Thus it seems appropriate that Totems Flare doesn’t add up to much. And while I know that expecting an album that seems to be about an aesthetic of fragmentation to be consistent in some way — thematically, sonically, rhythmically, whatever — is contradictory, Totems Flare doesn’t really reward the attention it demands.
Despite his meticulousness, Clark hasn’t really made an auteur album. The individual tracks are often really-good-to-great: there’s no real lag between middle album tracks "Look Into The Heart Now," "Luxman Furs," "Totem Crackerjack," and "Future Daniel," no single moment where everything goes off the rails. All the same, there’s no real affective through-line, and try as "Talis" might to reprise the two other tracks where Clark sings, his Douglas Pierce-like moroseness only lends to the song’s drag-assery, and until album ender "Absence," you feel as if your foot has sunk into some of the autumn rot that had been a nice perfume minutes earlier. "Absence" may be aptly named in that it reaches out to the listener with a sort of emotional directness lacking in the other tracks. It’s strange to feel so ambivalent about an album with as many bright spots as this one, but it feels as though Clark may be trying to examine his own formal tendencies at the same time that he loses grasp of them.