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Clark - Playground in a Lake Music Album Reviews

Clark - Playground in a Lake Music Album Reviews
Following the recent turn toward acoustic instruments in his soundtrack work, the UK electronic polymath investigates neoclassical modes on an album inspired by climate change.

Twenty years is a long time to do anything, no matter how well you do it. Even for an artist as restless as English electronic polymath Chris Clark, 20 years of poking and prodding at his hybridized sound might lose its zest. Connecting the dots of Clark’s sizable discography, almost entirely released by Warp Records, is like clocking an earthquake tremor. Where the stylistic variances between early records Clarence Park and Empty the Bones of You are slight, the seven albums from 2006 masterwork Body Riddle to 2017’s Death Peak are all over the map. Noodling modular sequences, heavily processed rap samples, deconstructed live drums, bucolic acoustic guitars, haunted piano themes, loungey jazz vocals, blippy chiptune synths—Clark seemingly never had an idea that wasn’t worth trying at least once. In recent years, however, the pings on his seismograph have been landing much closer together.

There’s at least one reason for the increasing cohesion in Clark’s output. In 2015, the producer landed his first soundtrack gig scoring the grim crime-thriller series The Last Panthers. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very good at it. Besides his track record conjuring complex emotional heft from bleak atmospheres, Clark has always told elaborate, if inscrutable, stories across his albums. The Last Panthers OST was no different, and stood on its own as a winding musical narrative evoking thick fog, scorched earth, and brief clearings in the murk. Clark continued his film work with the 2018 drama series Kiri and the 2019 horror film Daniel Isn’t There, whose soundtracks hewed closer to their sources’ narratives. They were also increasingly reliant on classical instrumentation, a fascination of Clark’s that soon colored more of his personal music.

“Harpsichords are the original rave hoovers,” he said about 2018’s E​.​C​.​S​.​T. T​.​R​.​A​.​X., a frenetic two-song dance record featuring harpsichord and piano, respectively. Apparently, traditional film-score arrangements were reinvigorating this seasoned producer’s creativity. But where “Piano E.C.S.T” found new possibilities in familiar sounds, the classical experiments on 2019’s Kiri Variations tapped out somewhere around wobbly dissonance. Playground in a Lake—Clark’s first non-soundtrack album since 2017, which he calls “a story about real climate change, but told in mythological terms”—takes the next logical step in his relationship with classical music: reverence. Opening track “Lovelock” is essentially a cello solo by frequent collaborator Oliver Coates; then comes “Lambent Rag,” a spritely piano suite given wings by subtle, uplifting synths.

Clark’s repositioning as a neoclassical composer is not entirely unexpected. Piano has appeared on Clark albums from the beginning, albeit in short flourishes. And the IDM musician’s unconventional musicality and innovative sound design share affinities with composers like Nils Frahm and Max Richter. Playground in a Lake sounds most natural to Clark when it’s a mutual exchange of old and new ideas. The synth-driven “More Islands” uses wavering, detuned tones that date back to Clarence Park, now arranged like the doomed symphony on a sinking ship. When actual strings appear in the coda, they might as well be lush pads and rolling basslines. On “Entropy Polychord,” what sounds like a generative music system made from orchestral tape loops becomes dense, synthetic, and controlled—clear skies consumed by grim thunder clouds. Clark has always excelled at making his electronics feel tactile and gritty, and it’s equally satisfying to hear his live instruments sound ethereal and illusory.

Whether on cellos, clarinets, pianos, or keyboards, Clark’s fingerprints are largely recognizable throughout Playground in a Lake, allowing him to swap out instrumental palettes mid-piece for a striking tonal effect. The best tracks, like the apocalyptic “Earth Systems” and soft-spoken “Citrus,” merge these sounds to varying degrees. More importantly, they push their ideas toward the fringes. Less successful are the straight putts. There’s a toothless austerity to the way the strings in “Forever Chemicals” roll along unadorned and uninterrupted, which can also describe “Suspension Reservoir.” Its piano sounds automatic, indifferent, as if pulled from a generic film cue library. “Emissary” feels detached as well, albeit for different reasons. Clark sets the violin melody slightly askew from the piano notes, and it’s not so much disorienting as cold and unappealing. Not necessarily a bad approach, if only it had been used as punctuation in a more dynamic composition.

The whole of Playground in a Lake suffers from the flatness of its instrumentation and emotional range. Some of that seems intentional—such as the robotic vocals, self-playing pianos, and dusty strings—yet it’s no less at odds with an existentially themed body of music. “I’m like an animal trapped in a flood,” sings a choirboy near the end of “Emissary,” which on paper reads like the emotional low point for an album about the inheritors of global warming. In practice, he might as well be reciting lines fed to him by a hypnotist. The moment of palpable dread does eventually come—not in the dry follow-up “Comfort and Fear,” but its counterpart “Shut You Down.” Synths growl as much as they tremble, kick drums plummet like meteors, and the tumult underneath threatens to rip a chasm into the earth. On an album that struggles with effective articulation, this is where Clark bellows the loudest, and in an unmistakable voice.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Clark - Playground in a Lake Music Album Reviews Clark - Playground in a Lake Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, April 01, 2021 Rating: 5

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