With Spokes, the UK electronic duo Plaid creates an album brimming with enough clicks, cuts, blips and beats to titillate and entrance even the most discerning of listeners.
Plaid, consisting of Ed Handley and Andy Turner, has been essential listening for well-informed fans of electronic music since the mid ’90s. The duo has nearly a dozen releases to its credit, each one offering something progressively different from the last. Spokes is no exception.
The material on Spokes initially started as beats Handley and Turner developed and played during their 2002 U.S. tour. They began to build off those base tunes using sounds and instruments completely conceived and developed on their computers. The pair also used bizarre sounds such as bat noises and dripping water from London’s underground catacombs. The end result is an album that combines man and machine, creating one inseparable force of pure musical exploration.
The album opens with the haunting piano loop and uplifting vocal samples of “Even Spring.” Just when a trance beat seems to be on the horizon behind the voices, the listener is instead thrust from the spacey intro into a lush, dense environment by way of Plaid’s signature clicks and blips. This particular Plaid technique layers small clips of sound played at different speeds and lengths to achieve a complex, swirling drum pattern. The track’s constant beat allows for new sounds and elements to be introduced and then disappear, one of the more musically challenging aspects that surfaces frequently on Spokes. “Even Spring” ends in a completely different musical state signifying the listener has taken a sort of sonic journey.
Many tracks, such as “Get What You Gave” and “Cedar City,” are more accessible to a wider audience than earlier Plaid material, which is at times harsh and digitally cold. The strong central melodies and looped drum structures of these Plaid songs are easy to follow. They give listeners a starting point to hook onto and discover the vastly and complex sonic structures that Plaid is famous for. Some tracks unfortunately fall flat because of their devolved patterns.
“B Born Droid” is off-base compared with the rest of Spokes. This particular track is unimaginative in both conception and execution. While most sounds on the album are painstakingly constructed and dripping with handcrafted effects, the instruments on this tune sound cheesy and lazily strewn about. Plaid’s artistic drive is definitely missing here.
On the other end of the spectrum stands “Marry,” which showcases the full potential of Plaid’s musical talent and song writing skills. Beginning with the ominous rumble of low bass and fuzzed-out noises, the track translates big city sounds into electronic tones. A tricked out vibraphone blasts its way into the foreground and the song swings into a two-step dance beat. The vibraphone then dukes it out with a piano, call-and-response style, battling for tonal superiority. The fuzzy bass and stereo panning effects make “Marry” a massive, seething beast of musical expression.
Turner and Handley masterfully transform their artistic visions and imaginations into a vibrant, warm journey for the ears that balances their playful nature with grim dark tones.
If history is any indication, Spokes will prove to be only a stepping stone in Plaid’s evolution. But for now, it is their most imaginative and artistically sculpted accomplishment to date. Electronic music novices and experts alike will find much to love about this fantastic album.