Plaid, Double Figure (Warp): The Black Dog were among the earliest groups to espouse the form loosely known, for lack of a better term, as "intelligent techno." Beginning with the coveted "Virtual" EP on their own imprint in 1989, Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner spent the better part of the next decade crafting jewel-toned breakbeat techno that broke away from the dance-floor haze of acid house. As Black Dog Productions, Balil, Parasight and other aliases, they released a stream of recordings for labels like Warp and GPR that seemed like fragments of some sonic Rosetta Stone, coded hints to an otherworldly musical language of analog squelch, tribal folk songs, and chamber arrangements.
The trio split after 1996's Music for Adverts, but Handley and Turner wasted no time in reviving their Plaid identity, which had entered BDP's collective identity with 1991's Mbuki Mvuki. On 1998's Not for Threes and 1999's Rest Proof Clockwork, the duo carried on the classic Black Dog sound, bringing to it a predilection for vibrant, glistening tones Caribbean steel drums maintained an incongruous presence and tracks cut so short they seemed almost like preludes.
But where those two records experimented with vocals and more pop-oriented songs (including contributions from Björk and Nicolette), Double Figure moves back toward more ambiguous terrain, one strewn with unfamiliar plants that don't readily reveal the buds hidden behind prickles and spines. It doesn't have anywhere near the complexity of Autechre's Confield an album to which it's related in legacy, if not form and it may take longer to appreciate Double Figure than Autechre's new album. There's something maddening in the way Plaid pairs an intricate, off-kilter rhythmic figure with fairly straight four-bar chord changes and synth tones that often sound like presets. Certainly, there are moments where they perfectly blend pop structure, rhythmic innovation and a keen ear for texture, as in the nostalgic refrain of "Assault on Precinct Zero." And the chattering, percussive rush of "Ooh Be Do" demonstrates that there are still remarkable organisms hiding along the overgrown, neglected paths in Autechre's backyard. But are the climbing arpeggios of the chiming "New Family" the most interesting melodic conceit they can come up with?
As it turns out, that's the wrong question to ask. For all their surface simplicity, the duo demand patience; they require a willingness to wait for the predictable forms to shift, subtly, just when your attention is about to slip. Plaid excel at the little moments where the music breathes moments all too rare within the regularized patterns of most beat-oriented electronic music. Just consider the point a little past the four-minute mark in "New Family," when everything stops for the space of a pulse (there's a reason they call it a "beat" in acting). It's not so much a breakdown as a feint, a half-step to the side, marked by a single measure of percussive hesitation, before the song takes a headlong spin into a dizzy cascade of faraway vocals and goes spiraling deep into your consciousness. Such a little thing, but it's enough to color everything in a different light, and to show you a whole new way of listening. Philip Sherburne