Review Summary: Squarepusher proves he still has ideas a-plenty, with musical heft to match.
Squarepusher, AKA 'Tom Jenkinson', is an enigma. Still relatively obscure, his imaginative fusion of jazz, funk and schizoid drum and bass on such albums as ‘Hard Normal Daddy’ and ‘Music Is Rotted One Note’ created a big buzz throughout the underground scene in the early 90s. But then he went erratic, releasing a swathe of WTF? albums (the too-experimental for it’s own good ‘Do you know Squarepusher?’, the plain boring ‘Hello Everything’) or potentially great efforts hampered by a lack of editing (the too-long ‘Ultravisitor’). But Lo! He’s back with a new album, and has cut it down to around a mere three-quarters of an hour. Will this be a comeback for Jenkinson and his virtuosic bass skills?
Happily, the answer is mostly yes. We kick things off in great style with ‘Star Time 2’, which begins with jittering jazz drums (also played by Jenkinson) and syncopated organ stabs, then the stacatto octave bass brings us into the main theme, a supremely funky sci-fi bounce, accesorised with brilliant bass fills. It performs the same kind of purpose as ‘Hello Meow’ on the previous album, but better in every way, from the double-time jazzy chord switches, to the sweet synth melody over the top. This song must surely stand as one of the best, and most accesible things he has done. Alledgedly, this song also introduces us to the ‘concept’ of the album, Jenkinson’s attempt to convert a dream he had about the greatest gig ever into music (hmm..let's just forget that for the moment, perhaps). Then we segue into ‘The Coathanger’, a much more different prospect indeed. Pretty much the only instruments featured during the enitre song are unusually subdued drums keeping the beat, the occasional vocal hook of the title, and, of course, the bass, which makes the song in every way. The playing on this is simply superb, with Squarepusher’s layered lines functioning as everything at once. His playing is captivating here, and luckily so, as the song would be nothing without it. The polar opposite of the relative ‘lushness’ in sound of track 1. After a fairly tedious interlude (the main weakness of the album, too many of these) lurks an odd prospect: Jenkinson doing a kind of ‘surf-pop’ song (not that it’s about surfing, more the genre). Perhaps the weakest track on the album; his weirdly mannered vocals and some fairly cringeworthy lyrics are beyond saving, even by the usual moments of jazzy brilliance. I must admit, the drumming is very good though, as it is on the next u-turn of a track: the monstrous ‘Delta V’, wherein Squarepusher discovers....distortion! And Hawkwind! And rock riffage, to unnervingly great effect; he has a real gift for catchy sequences , which is what this song basically is a collection of, but in a good way. The juxtaposition of impossibly snarling bass playing jazz changes is quite something to hear.
Interlude 2. Yawn.
Then the purple patch continues with ‘Potential Govaner’. Short but oh-so sweet, the song filts manically between drum n’ bass virtuosity, organ stabs, and a brilliant, brilliant solo. (sorry to be hyperbolic here, but is really is something). The backwards drums only add interest. If this had been on ‘Do You Know Squarepusher’, it would have been streched out for at least 6 minute longer, but Tom shows remarkable restraint. Unlike on ‘Planet Gear’, where he freaks out to admirable effec, this sounds like the rampaging riffs of ‘Delta V’, plus the Sci-Fi of ‘Star Time’ with an fury and complexity that is a joy to behold. By ‘Tensor In Green’, we’re movin’ into Hendrix territory, another lovely staccato riff morphing into all kinds of cosmic space rock weirdness. By now, we could perhaps do with a bit of variation, but it’s certainly not boring. And the next track the ‘Glass Road’ does offer something slightly different: the now ubiqitious distortion is still there, but with fuller instrumentation and a lovely acoustic guitar theme, while still leaving space for branches out into polka rythyms, metal (!) thrashing, and swung slap-bass. Unfortunately, while it has some brilliant ideas, the track runs about 3 minutes too long, displaying the first signs of indulgence so far.
Interlude 3. Unnecessary.
Now pour the wine and sit back people, for now we have the cool cod-classical guitar of ‘Duotone Moonbeam’, a nice change in tone, even if it does degenerate (yes, degenerate) into free-jazz noodlings by the end. To be honest, this functions as an interlude itself, making that two in a row. Grrr. Luckily, and to wrap up the album, the great ‘Quadrature’ with it’s lazy, on the beat (for once) chord sequence, gently shuffling drums, comes along, also with proof that TJ can play extraordinarily sympathetic guitar leads. A perfect way to end an often frantic album.
In conclusion, this is a real ‘comeback’ for Squarepusher after what I feel was a run of so-so albums. Intricate but accesible, out-there but tuneful, the paradoxes abound. Obviously a big attraction is the fantastic musicianship, but it’s more the way that Jenkinson uses his skills instead of showing off that sets him apart. The album only suffers (and in retrospect, changed my mind about the 4.5) in that the middle section is a tad to sam-ey, and there are too many pointless interludes interrupting my listening experience. That, however, is a personal complaint, and don’t let it stop you from giving this fascinating album a spin.
Choice Cuts: ‘Star Time 2’, ‘Duotone Moonbeam’, ‘Quadrature’.