By the time Ed Handley and Andy Turner split from intelligent dance music's flagship group the Black Dog in the mid-'90s, they'd managed to throw some subversive shuffle and bleep into techno's generic dance-floor thump. On their first two albums as Plaid, Not for Threes and Rust Proof Clockwork, Handley and Turner further decorated the kick drum's rhythmic reign with a tinge of ambience here, a little warped electro there, while bits of downtempo and poppy electronica brightened the corners. Those who see Plaid's new album, Spokes, as a back-to-techno-basics statement miss the point. The band is indeed having another look at the genre it subverted a decade ago. But much like the duo's previous full-length, 2001's Double Figure, Spokes finds Handley and Turner with enough compositional mastery over the techno formula that they can almost shape it like a kid molds a snowball, or play with it as a baby lion would a skittish mouse.

While the typical techno song starts with that heavy kick pounding through spacey ambience, Plaid opens many of the tunes on Spokes with emotive keyboard riffs seeping into complex, kinetic beats. Those beat-and-melody packages rise up out of seemingly natural environments that teem with whooping robotic monkeys and birds ("Upona") or radio-wave ether ("Marry"). And rather than follow techno's strictures of dramatic midsong breakdowns and buildups, Plaid seems to let the tunes create themselves, allowing "B Born Droid" to tangle a downtempo beat with a delicate, koto-sounding lead melody and the dense drum pattern of "Even Spring" to lustily grind with vocalist Lucca Santucci's androgynous, almost Thom Yorke-ish croon. Of course, in the best techno tradition, Handley and Turner completely control the mounting chaos of Spokes, a fact that speaks deeply of their rare (in techno) songwriting skills.

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Ron Nachmann