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The Haul: Clark's Totems Flare

I put off getting Clark’s Growls Garden EP, which has an excellent Vertigo-inspired cover, because aside from the title track and the blissfully ambient “Farewell Mining Town,” too much of the EP felt like filler. Fortunately, Totems Flare includes “Growls Garden,” so the EP can go further down my list of eventual purchases.

107. Clark – Totems Flare 2LP – Warp, 2009 – $20

Clark's Totems Flare

Totems Flare has received mixed reviews, but I view it as a return to form after 2008’s Turning Dragon. I use “return to form” here with a very specific meaning. Turning Dragon wasn’t a bad album, but its up-front blasts of techno valued aggression too highly, losing the range of the exceptional Body Riddle. If I enjoyed that style of electronic music more, I’d likely recommend it, but it simply didn’t have what appealed to me about Empty the Bones of You and Body Riddle. Totems Flare does. It returns to the range of Body Riddle, but brings the driving synth lines from Turning Dragon and a surprising amount of vocals along. (This paragraph would be much clearer as a graph.)

Those vocals are the love-it-or-leave-it aspect of Totems Flare. On “Growls Garden,” they switch between a gothic voiceover and a calm singing voice; on “Rainbow Voodoo” they get precariously close to electro-jive; on “Look into the Heart Now” they’re masked by vocoder; on “Talis” and “Suns of Temper” they’re delivered with a surprising level of emotional resignation. The distance between these deliveries is enormous and so is my response to them; I love the vocals on “Talis,” begrudgingly endure them on “Rainbow Voodoo,” and barely notice them on “Look into the Heart Now.” Yet a big reason why I enjoyed Body Riddle so much is the unpredictability of its structure and sonics. Can I fault Clark for taking the same approach for his vocals?

The music on Totems Flare is full of left turns as well. I was all ready to declare side B, which contains “Look into the Heart Now,” the creepy funhouse music of “Luxman Furs,” and the revolving electronic door of “Totem Crackerjack,” a future skip, but all three of these songs change course in interesting, unexpected ways. The final minute of “Totem Crackerjack” alone goes from pulsing electronic resolve to ambient outro to echoing piano close. The constant melodic escalation/acceleration in “Future Daniel” is a highlight of Totems Flare, but even that song spends 30 seconds of its runtime dissolving into a pale reflection of itself. The acoustic guitar closer “Absence” might be the biggest surprise on the album, since, as its title indicates, there are no beats, no synthesizers, no vocals.

Totems Flare isn’t a perfect album, nor does it surpass Body Riddle for my favorite Clark release. (Editor's note 10/3/2010: It sure has.) Yet it’s constantly challenging, constantly interesting. I suspect that I’d ignored side B in part because of its lack of prominent vocals, since negotiating with these elements is a huge part of the Clark listening experience. I’d love to successfully predict where he’ll go next, but like Chris Jeely of Accelera Deck, there’s almost no limit to the possibilities.