guest writer: eli schoop on spencer clark
"Idk I guess Spencer Clark is not of our realm anyways why would I trust him to follow linear time."
|May 25, 2020||2|
(photo by seth lower)
welcome to issue #19 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this week i’ve invited eli schoop, music writer at tone glow, bandcamp daily, and tiny mix tapes, to write an overview of the work of spencer clark. it takes a dedicated follower to track clark’s releases across his many monikers, but schoop straightens it all out by guiding us through 19 (!) of his albums.
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The tags on Spencer Clark’s albums on Bandcamp include: “alien flesh,” “demon classical desert fusion,” “nightshade gown,” “go abduct yourself,” and “devotional.” These are apt summations of Clark’s music. He has become one of the foremost purveyors of uncanny music since his days as a member of the Skaters with James Ferraro. But while Ferraro has focused on the collapsing infrastructures and strange strata of neoliberalism, Clark has shunned any sort of human presence in his music. A man of infinite aliases, his work as Fourth World Magazine, Monopoly Child Star Searchers, Typhonian Highlife, H.R. Giger’s Studiolo, Vodka Soap, and various collaborations have planted him as a figure without equal; a cosmologist of the supernatural, floating through time and space and curating otherworldly sounds along the way.
What follows is hopefully a satisfactory overview of Clark’s work, although given his extensive discography, I could very well be excluding important recordings. His body of work is so far-reaching that any misses of mine may be hiding some of his most vital creations; however, that is the beauty of what Clark does. His music is one of discovery, of buried treasures and meaning revealed, as the listener stumbles upon more and more goodies in the process. Whenever you think you have left no stone unturned, another of his recordings pops up and bewilders. This is why he has remained a true eidolon in the experimental music scene. Plenty have the talent, the craft, and the range. But few give the audience so much in terms of universes, transporting them to places they’d never dream to seek without Clark’s guidance. He is a virtuoso through and through. It’s his world, but everyone’s invited to play.
Albums are listed chronologically, from his early band The Skaters with James Ferraro and then through his many later aliases. Dates refer to first physical release.
Dark Rye Bread (2004)
This is the beginning of the Spencer Clark mythos, and probably the album most influenced by noise, directly descended from the burgeoning contemporary scene that included Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, and Prurient. However, you could already tell that these dudes were different. Drone signifiers like a resolute wall of sound and unyielding intensity are abandoned in favor of howls, wails, coos, and lots of membranophones. In retrospect, though, a very modest debut, given what was to come.
Where things get real good. Fully unhinged behavior from the two enigmatics, encapsulated by the foreboding medieval album artwork, akin to the legendary Hieronymus Bosch paintings of hell. Almost no noise effects are present, as Clark/Ferraro instead opt for vocal modulation that reflects the suffering of the damned and the eternal chaos in which they live. Sheer mania, and a glimpse of Clark’s exploration of outer worlds and unrealized forms of being.
Wherein James Ferraro and Spencer Clark move fully out of the noise sphere by which they entered and emerge from their chrysalis as a beautiful psychedelic butterfly. Fully immersed in their goals of altering consciousness, the droning cacophony probes far reaches of the mind in an attempt to affect listeners’ temporal lobes. At this point, Ferraro has moved on to New Age simulacra, foreshadowing his thematic growth, but Clark stays the course of transcending our simple reality by way of lunacy in sound.
Vodka Soap - Shee-Ro Gateway Temples (2008)
Clark’s obsession with jungles begins. I have a feeling that the ‘90s tropes of temple biomes and rainforests, e.g. Legends of the Hidden Temple, inspire his imagery; a netherworld of forgotten civilizations and zones once inhabited but now left as monuments to the gods themselves. Rateyourmusic tags this as “hypnagogic pop” but if this is pop it’s probably airing on some alien FM radio, 'cause no humans would ever slap this on a Spotify playlist for TikTok teens to dance to.
Tribal sensations collide in this split EP. Side A features Clark taking on some sort of ritual sacrifice by way of peyote and a divergence in state of being, while Side B represents a party in celebration of the ridding of evil spirits. The Monopoly Child Star Searchers moniker lets us know that Clark needs to diversify his musical appearance, as to signal to the audience his mindset through each individual release.
Clark refers to this album title as a sort of manifestation of what African landscapes were described as under colonialism. Kind of insidious considering that the man lives in Belgium, one of the most catastrophic architects of the mass genocide of the continent. There’s sort of a meta storyline in Clark’s nom de plume “Charles Berlitz” as an explorer through the ruins of unknown societies, bulldozed by the cruel pursuit of capital coalescing around them. It’s both dizzying and seductive.
A jaunty run through the jungle. Very subdued compared to his other works and a refreshing change of pace. Probably inspired by Wendy Carlos and early electronic experiments, but with a Spencer Clark infusion that makes it just as appetizing as his other mind-bending output. Calming and good for relaxed activities like pottery or meditation.
Peaceful and ambient combining the jungle biome that Clark loves so much with a more sunny disposition, like extraterrestrial life going on vacation in Costa Rica. Less essential than other pseudonyms and releases in the extended Spencer Clark universe, this release still contains some very lovely chord progressions and arpeggios that had become a natural fit throughout Clark’s oeuvre.
You would think that the jungle motif would get tired by now, but Clark never ceases to make your synapses fire on all cylinders. Here, the tunes resemble a Klasky-Csupo cartoon, fizzling like Pop Rocks across jam session keyboards set ablaze. Many great composers like Reich, Glass, and Monk all have themes they fall back on as comfort food, but Spencer Clark is easily the most whimsical of them in his ability to conjure a wide variety of colors and shapes through the same common denominators.
Fourth World Magazine - The Spectacle of Light Abductions (2011)
The magnum opus of his discography. What Roswell enthusiasts want UFO transmissions to sound like. I don’t think humankind will ever be equipped to handle or even comprehend this music. It’s a gurgling ecosystem, dark matter substances melding and gelatinously mutating our minds to terraform the Earth into one giant ectoplasmic goo. Fearless, unstoppable, chaotic, and surprisingly accessible for something so unwieldy and foreign.
“The Garnet Toucan implies the stellar twin myth as the Toucan essembles its concsciousness in the stars....” (sic). A classic Spencer Clark truism, mythmaking while explaining his thought processes throughout the creation of an album. Here he has almost fully morphed from his humble noise-psychedelia beginnings into something and someone much more abstract and non-corporeal. Spencer Clark, the musician, is merely a conduit by whom The Garnet Toucan and other figures can speak their ideas so that humanity can comprehend them. He’s become the universal translator for the unknown entities we seek connections with.
Not surprisingly, Clark is a fan of Clive Barker, who he mind melds with here to craft the music of the Cenobites. Apparently their tunes are a lot more pleasant than one would expect, given the flesh-eating hooks and gruesome murder Cenobites are oh so famous for. But elevator music has long been derided as a hellish exercise in art, so Clark must have tapped into Hell’s true soundtrack. Giving yourself over to sadomasochism has never felt so soothing.
The second iteration of Clark’s descent into the world of the Cenobites, and the most singular piece of the Fourth World Magazine project. The title is pretty literal, referencing a world in which Pinhead would actually frolic in the paradise that is Fantasia, or more figuratively, Spencer Clark’s takes on legendary Fantasia composer Leopold Stokowski’s compositions. This is all catalogued in C Monster’s masterwork of a review for Tiny Mix Tapes, which much better encapsulates Pinhead in Fantasia than I ever could. Nonetheless, I believe Fourth World Magazine highlights Spencer at his most avant and most ingenious, cutting through any clutter and producing spectacular iconography no other musician on Earth can properly realize. Legendary Wire writer David Keenan makes a guest appearance in the liner notes as well to properly convey the thrills given to us here. A true treasure from a master.
The first part of the Hellraiser quadruple album but the third part chronologically? Idk I guess Spencer Clark is not of our realm anyways why would I trust him to follow linear time. Regardless, it’s probably the darkest in the timeline, sifting through cavernous locales whilst the Cenobite torture is administered with a frightening efficiency. The Giger worship just adds to the uneasiness, fitting into the legacy of the Swiss icon as if he were the executive producer for the record.
Tarzana - Alien Wildlife Estate (2015)
An amalgamation of all the work that Spencer Clark has done so far. Takes the alien ambrosia of Fourth World Magazine, adds a little bit of Monopoly Child Star Searchers for that cosmic ooze, with a dash of the Giger experiments. Bonus points for incorporating his old pal Ferraro by way of iAsia and Condo Pets, especially since Clark said the recordings for this LP were from 2012 to 2015. That explains how sonically deviant all of the tracks are, but in true Spencer Clark form, they’re all interesting and beautiful in their own special little ways.
For how alien Spencer Clark’s discography is, The World of Shells is wholly influenced by Christian musiciality, or at least what could constitute a fair reading of Christian music after shunning the sanitized version promoted by Victorian England. Its contents are prim and proper but reveal an underbelly of dismay and catastrophe, rendering the inhabitants of the world powerless to stop their retribution at the hands of the gods.
Essentially the only post-Skaters release where Clark goes by his real name, and it’s an album of field recordings? Regardless, The Stimulated Australia has a patented Spencer Clark quality, inviting us into the flora and fauna of Australia (although since it is Spencer Clark, this could be Swaziland for all we know) with a calm, guiding hand. Despite Clark loving for the listener to enter his twisted mind, he could make a good tourist marketer for the continent if they so wished.
The final installation of the H.R. Giger/Clive Barker-universe quadruple record that has diverged into several different pathways while still living between infernal misery and tropical ideation. The series was well-mannered at the same time that it strung together its own understanding of monsters and their wants, combining pathology with a sort of mysticism only Spencer Clark is capable of. You could consider this a swan song for tales of the Cenobites, but considering how enthusiastic Clark is with his interests, we may return to these primordial swamps soon enough.
Star Searchers - Avatar Blue (2019)
For his latest pivot, Clark looks towards his old friend James Ferraro and gives us a text-to-speech dreamtopia reminiscent of Far Side Virtual, but instead of being up in the clouds on Emirates Airlines, you’re in the sea marveling at great aquatic creatures. More specifically, Avatar Blue is meant to be sound effects in the same way that FSV’s tracks were meant to be ringtones, but given the creators’ proclivities, these tracks are far too animated for their own good, and stand alone as living, breathing entities who flourish outside any contexts.
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