What separates the natural world from that of synthetic recreations? Is it not just all vibrating molecules arranged into rhythmic patterns? Polymer, a Greek derived word meaning ‘many parts’ and used to describe both natural and synthetic macromolecules composed of repeating patterns of monomer molecules, accurately describes Plaid’s latest release.
Similarly to the ages-long process of specific natural elements converging with each other to form sparkling jewels, Plaid have been synthetically honing their craft since 1991 – longer if you include Ed Handley and Andy Turner’s start with Black Dog Productions. The result has been a slow, subtle evolution of electronic aural alchemy sounding unlike any of their peers at Warp and beyond. Plaid have long been masters of crystalline, interlocking comb-filtered percussive FM synthesis forming almost euphoric (and sometimes melancholic) melodies, and Polymer has plenty of that.
Where Polymer stands apart from Plaid’s recent past releases is that it doesn’t feel just like a loose collection of tracks, but rather a tightly-bonded, cohesive yet diverse album informed by Ed and Andy’s manifesto for the project: “Polyphony, Pollution, and Politics”. Their many years of experimentation in the Plaid laboratory have enabled them the ability to create dazzlingly refined and complex tracks where everything melds perfectly while still pushing the boundaries of contemporary electronic music.
The opening ‘Meds Fade’ is something new from Plaid, a sci-fi, almost darkwave track which buzzes and drifts over alien landscapes sounding like the soundtrack Zaxxon never had. It feels like the chaotic and polluted external route one must take to get to the inner sanctum of the Polymer experience. Once there, we are greeted by the lab experiment that is ‘Los’, complete with cyclical machine percussion and bubbling 303 (a nod to this album having the prestigious Warp catalogue number 303, perhaps?). Later, ‘Ops’ combines a natural human vocal element to provide an effective rhythmic phrase punctuated by percussive syncopated vibrating plucks. One is constantly impressed with the spatial dimension Plaid is able to produce in their music and it is especially apparent on Polymer.
Further along the experience, ‘Drowned Sea’ – a dark, brooding Coil-like track with hauntingly subtle pitched and warped vocal samples – reminds us that with great modern advances oftentimes comes the failings of humankind’s ability to properly deal with the remains of their creations. Informing this particular track are the ever-present micro-plastics in the food chain and massive plastic tides. It is no wonder that plastic debris was recently found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which, at 11km, is deeper than the tallest mountain is high. On a more optimistic tone, albeit a deeply melancholic one, ‘Dancers’ lifts one up as only Plaid can do with their signature melodic chimes and ethereal pads floating over skittering fragile drums. With light there is dark and ‘Recall’ brings thing back around with the sounds of glitched and sputtering synths akin to malfunctioning lab equipment.
However synthetic the title Polymer hints at, and with Plaid’s music in general, they are no strangers to incorporating natural elements seamlessly, if not subtly, into their array. Polymer follows other plaid albums with the addition of guitar and other acoustic staccato sounds which can be found in the likes of ‘The Pale Moth’, ‘Nurula’, and ‘Crown Shy’, satisfying perhaps their long-standing threat of recording an entire album with nothing other than a slowly deconstructed guitar. Nothing in Plaid’s discography comes quite as close to the full-on acoustic mark, however, as Polymer’s closing track does. ‘Praze’ – an old word for meadow – is a strikingly enchanted mediaeval bard-esque strain that relates to Britain’s disappearing wildflower meadows. In ‘Praze’s final melancholy there is also hope, not unlike stepping into a field after the daunting journey which began with ‘Meds Fade’, travelling through Plaid’s polymerisation laboratory experience until finally closing on a sole harpsichord.
Polymer is a wonderful and emotionally diverse experience that manages to retain the playfulness of past releases such as Rest Proof Clockwork to the darkness of Greedy Baby. As the word implies, Polymer is a complete album made of many parts, made of songs of many parts, made of machines and instruments of many parts, and so on down to the realm of mere vibration. For even in the realm of electronics and their perceived artificial means of creation, a most natural experience can be created – one known as music.
Polymer by Plaid is out now on Warp.
Words: Bryan Michael. Bryan Michael is a founding member of Philadelphia electronics unit Alka. Listen to Alka’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal at Spotify.
(c) 2019 Further.
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