IDM duo Plaid are back, with their best album in a decade, finds Bob Cluness

It’s hard to believe just how quaint the genre “IDM” has come to be regarded these days. Despite it’s catch-all clumsiness when it was first used back in the early-to-mid-90s, it certainly suggested the idea of cerebral consciousness-raising that was in opposition to the degenerative, head-caving sounds and extreme dionysian fuckpools of hardcore. No, IDM was to be all about hardware exploration and formalism, mediated contemplation and chill; it was mannered glitches, grainy wisps and melodic sound washes, a humanising integration of technology with nature. It was to be the triumph of the auteur heads over the lumpen prole body.

Today though, the idea of chilling out and getting deep feels completely out of step in a digitally accelerated western society guided and aligned by machine learning algorithms, where the dromological limits of processing power are breaking past human limits of cognition. Artificial intelligence is no longer used to hint at the future, but is now deployed in making electronic pop albums, while post-human gender-dissolutionist aesthetics are already being strip mined, deployed for their use in various experimental club formats. The utopian ideals of 90s IDM now seem rather twee and beardy by comparison.

Where does all this leave Plaid? The duo of Ed Handley and Andy Turner have always had a singular, almost hermetic approach to making music that has stood them well for nearly thirty years. Their “sound,” an unassuming mix of flighty rhythms and broken beats, twisty synths and live instrumentation, has been a perennial base that has served them well. But by the time of their last release, 2016’s The Digging Remedy, it all began to feel a tad comfortable and familiar, like we had gone around the block with this too many times before.

With that in mind, it’s a relief to state that their new album Polymer is very much Plaid’s best album this decade, and at least their best since 2008’s Heaven’s Door. The whole album sounds like they have decided to take a small break from the inside of their heads and work their bodies a little bit. It’s not that they’ve morphed into an industrial techno band or anything, but there is a much appreciated directness to their production that demands the listener take notice, rather than sit apologetically in the background. Polymer melds a tangled plethora of electronic sounds, textures and shapes, its near infinitesimal shapeshifting abilities and pathways reflecting the multitude of forms that plastics and proteins can be moulded into.

The opening track ‘Meds Fade’, for example, opens with a dirty low-end buzz and discordant high tones that are reminiscent of Boards of Canada, but Plaid eschew plain ambience opting instead to ally it with a direct boom-bap rhythm. This trick is repeated in ‘Drowned Sea’, as a singular springy monotone base spins and weaves multiple harmonics into a spidery and crystalline structure, natural in appearance, yet synthetic on closer inspection. With ‘Maru’, there is a pleasing thud in the kicks and a pinging metallic percussion that complements the glassy layers of sounds above. You can easily see a DJ dropping it in a sun-laden bass set on a terrace in a warm evening. While ‘Recall’ is a short, punchy salvo with hints of industrial monochrome and jagged edges that fans of Mumdance’s Different Circles label would surely appreciate.

But Plaid, suffice to say, have not got got as far as they have by being wild and carefree with their approach. Many of the production sounds, pings, and textures that you would associate with the group are all still there. Their years of working on soundtracks are present in tracks such as ‘The Pale Moth’, with kinetic, staccato woodwinds and accordions pressed up against electronic percussion, while ‘Nurula’ has minimal guitars and piano keys providing the balm against clackety, animated electro clicks. Closing track ‘Praze’ is a waltzing, lilting number resplendent with plucked guitars, strummed mandolins, and harpsichords that gently soothes and ends the album with a daydreamy glow.

On Polymer Plaid may have foregrounded a darker, discordant side to their production, but this has allowed for a much greater sense of cohesion and freshness in their work when combined with the lightness of touch that the duo are known for. It certainly seems that after twenty-five years of releases, we have not yet begun to hear the last of Plaid.

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