ON A MISSION Mike Clouds rises again.
There are plenty of artforms that appeal only to the niche-few, not many are as underappreciated than long-form digital instrumental works like those put together by Mike Clouds (and, earlier this summer, Alias). In diving deeply into these works—full of driving synths and insistent beats, bass you can feel more than hear, and atmospheric swirls—it’s possible to find an intellectual detachment most similar to classical music.
These are constructions and mechanical operations as much as they are songs, tactically approached in a way that’s different from forms like guitar-driven rock and lyric-based hip hop.
Seemingly dismissed (and, ironically, praised) as all sounding basically the same, works like Clouds’ Apollo’s Stamina, his sixth overall and first since 2010’s Minimal Message, have unique qualities that, like fingerprints, reveal themselves via intense examination. Without a lead vocalist to put a stamp on a song, those variances come in the style and execution of the producer, and Clouds has evolved into an extremely delicate touch, where even menacing and aggressive shouts and grinding beats carry a glimmering prettiness to them, like the ever-misunderstood Frankenstein’s monster.
Which makes “Can’t Do Pretty” so terrific—because of course Clouds can, transposing flutes and whistles like the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and letting them flutter like dirty-white moths over deep water. The wind-chime shimmer that infuses the verse of “The Katies” is the stars that you see at the edge of your vision right before blackout.
But that’s the stuff most like Minimal Message. On the new album’s opening tracks, Clouds flexes his muscles with more dirty South style. The highs and lows aren’t as hugely disproportionate in the drops as mainstream dubstep, but there’s still plenty of that build and release, just with rounded edges and a more steady flow.
Clouds isn’t some hopped-up teen in need of another pinch to make sure he’s alive, rather in the orc-ish shouts and Mordor beats of songs like “Reclaim” and “Same Hustle,” he’s exploring the dark corners of the dancefloor. Does he lay it on thick with the cocking shotgun in “Hustle”? Sure. But the repeating darth vocal sample—“we’re out paper chasing”—is unnerving in its directness.
The album is of a piece, and should be taken as a whole, but if picking one of the tracks for repeated play, go with “Optimal Power” or “Winter in Paris,” polar opposites in their approach. “Power” breathes in a dancehall vibe and music-box simplicity, only to introduce a heartracingly erratic conga line and a bass line that runs like an undercurrent that could take you sideways. “Paris” is the closer, an upbeat and invigorating song that could drive your workout in the midsection, but retaining a nostalgic regret that is the core of unrequited desire, and a reference back to the military chants of the album’s opening tracks.
At its best, like much of the artists collected by Milled Pavement, the style approaches Shostakovich and the great Russian literary minds that explored, and reveled in, despair and emptiness, finding beauty in them. It may not suit late-summer hurrahs, but it is perfectly suited to February’s bleakness. That will be back, soon enough.
Apollo’s Stamina | Released by Mike Clouds | on Milled Pavement Records | with Moshe + 32french + A-Frame + Brzowski | at Flask, in Portland | Aug 29 |milledpavement.com