For the 2017 iteration of the Manchester International Festival, BBC Radio 6 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs curated a series of events under the banner ‘Dark Matter’—eight events showcasing cutting edge music ranging from freeform jazz (Colin Stetson), drone metal (Sunn O)))), grime/street poetry (LEVELz/Kojey Radical) and forward-thinking electronica (Haxan Cloak, Holly Herndon, Paleman, Clark).
For most of these gigs Hobbs herself made a rare appearance in the live DJ support slot, but at Clark’s show at the o2 Ritz, Mancunian techno duo Akkord (Indigo + Synkro) were on warm-up duty. The two took turns to select huge and austere bottom-heavy kick drums and half-time junglist rhythms. It’s a slow burner and a hell of a balancing act—syncopated breakbeats that lurch, tumble and constantly threaten to boil over into a four to the floor bangers. That said, even while you’re inching forwards, Akkord’s sound never gets bogged down—crystal clear production and a heightened sense of restraint just leaves even more space for Chris Clark to excavate…
Hot off the release of his latest LP—Death Peak—Clark’s live tour features ‘human special effects’ Kiani Del Valle and Sophia Ndaba, choreographed by Melanie Lane and a light show designed by Brian Kelly.
Resting in the valley between twin peaks hewn from neon tubing and two sets of rectangular scaffolding brimming with LEDs, Clark stood anything but still and centre stage in front a fairly minimal set-up (two keyboards, sampler, Octatrack and mixing desk). Flanked by the squiggling parentheses of Del Valle and Ndaba, the shows kicks off serenely—the children’s choir of album opener ‘Spring but Dark’ gives way to the electro bounce of ‘Butterfly Prowler’ and EDM accordion in ‘Peak Magnetic’.
By the time the far moodier ‘Hoova’ rolled around, the two dancers emerged decked out in white hoodies pulled up and white caps pulled down—their faces obscured but with just enough room left for a fountain of J-horror locks to pour out of where their eyes should be. Whipped and windmilled rhythmically to Clark’s pointillist trance, the hair acts as a fifth limb, offsetting their own angular movements and hip-hop poses with sweeping arcs of jet black mops.
The show really got going with ‘Banjo’—a fan favourite and straight-up banger from Clark’s 2014 eponymous release. Sounding like a stop/start swarm of insects that change direction with each strike of the cowbell, ‘Banjo’ has a properly delirious turnaround riff that feels like both you and it are falling apart, only to be reasserted with each repetition of the kick drum. And then with a return to Death Peak, ‘Aftermath’ rings out with twinkling glass harpsichord rolls.
The sheer range of aural textures in Clark’s arsenal was finely complimented by the varied textiles of Melanie Lane’s costume design as well as Brian Kelly’s light show. Depending on the light source, at any one point or angle, Lane’s outfits might appear clear, opaque, reflective or diffusive—meaning that for an already hyperactive installation, at times, the dancers might appear to be moving at an incredible pace although standing completely still. At one point the two dancers were drowned in fine mesh veils, subaqueous shadows subtly undulating to the noises booming out of the speaker stack. Later on, armed with black body suits, epee facemasks and four-foot prismatic headgear, two slinky Pyramid Head’s stalk the stage rapidly twitching their pointed chins before embracing, the two pyramids held up and combined under a blinding light.
As the dancers departed, everything went green and an electro-train whistle (or screaming MIDI pan pipe) heralded ‘Superscope’—another old favourite and outlier in a set list dominated by new material. When they return, I can’t help but view them as a kind of human oscilloscope, their movements and gestures allowing for the observation of constantly varying signal voltages—making pulling shapes look like the ultimate waveform generator.
‘Catastrophe’ heralded a return to the sparkling children choir, before a break-neck rewind tour of the entire shows sonic textures. The noise stopped, stalled and slithered back and forth like a deprogrammed HAL before reconstituting itself in a climax that is more of a welcome back to planet earth than an adrenalin rush that leaves you up in the air.
Dark Matter demonstrated Mary Anne Hobbs’ continued reign as taste-maker supreme in cutting edge music. The series complimented the challenging and artistically diverse programme at MIF2017. Clark’s contribution, as one of only a handful of UK shows this year, offered fans a welcome chance to experience the unique live experience of his latest record.
‘Death Peak’ is out now on WARP. Clark performs Death Peak Live at Simple Things, Bristol in October.