Review Summary: Tom Jenkinson either doesn't get it, or doesn't care.
Tom Jenkinson has never been consistent at anything, really. Everything he’s managed to put out under the Squarepusher moniker has been a spastic mix of sometimes good, sometimes great, and sometimes extremely annoying. Not annoying in the dicking around, tongue-in-cheek ironic way that Richard D. James is with Aphex Twin, but annoying because he doesn’t really have any concept of restraint. It seems like every little idea that crosses his mind ends up on a Squarepusher record at some point or another and only about 25% of those ideas actually end up working. Sometimes it pays off, like the wonderfully surprising Numbers Lucent
EP released not too long after the overbearing exercise in extreme excess that was Just A Souvenir
only a few months prior, or the release of what might be the best album of his career in the form of 2004’s Ultravisitor
. Unfortunately, it has more often than not ended up producing confusing results at best.
It’s safe to say, however, that no one was quite prepared for what Jenkinson had in store for the world in 2014. After the massive failure of 2012’s Ufabulum
, which sounded like two separate albums smashed together because neither of them were very good, it wasn’t really quite clear where exactly the next Squarepusher record would take us (assuming this kind of foresight was ever possible in the first place). So, after an almost two year absence from the music world, the latest Squarepusher EP is here, and guess what? It’s played entirely by robots! No, that isn’t just a witty euphemism for a reclusive bedroom producer twisting knobs and sequencing drum loops on a computer screen. Squarepusher’s latest EP is actually played by real robots using real instruments conducted by none other than Tom Jenkinson himself. Yeah, that’s right.
Music For Robots
is one of those rare instances where it’s actually impossible to tell whether an album is all part of some elaborate joke or a serious, calculated attempt at creativity. Just read this enlightening passage that flashes across the screen for the promotional video that preceded the EP, from none other than Mr. Jenkinson himself:
“To make music using instrument-playing robots fascinates me. People have often assumed that for music to be emotionally powerful it has to come directly from a human hand, whereas I disagree with that, and enjoy proving these people wrong. This project is an excellent way of exploring that area more.”
That might make sense if the music contained on Music For Robots
actually pushed the boundaries of how traditional instruments could be utilized in the context of digital and electronic music; but it doesn’t. Not only that, but this has quite literally already been done before (most notably on Pat Metheny’s solo jazz record Orchestrion
, released only a measly 4 years ago). Clocking in at a merciful 23 minutes, Music For Robots
is little more than Squarepusher’s tried-and-true drum and bass meets jazz-fusion formula that he’s been playing around with for forever at this point, except this time anything and everything that made that juxtaposition interesting has been stripped away in favor of pure, laughable spectacle.
The only part of Music For Robots
that actually manages to do anything interesting shows up about halfway through the centerpiece of the EP, the 7 minute “Dissolver”. For about 15 seconds, Jenkinson’s robot buddies actually manage to make their instruments sound so warped by these robotic manipulations that the sonic context melts away in favor of something that admittedly sounds pretty cool. Sadly, seemingly as quickly as it came, the track devolves back into the same pointless musical wankery that pervades the rest of the album. Not a single track on this EP sounds anything different from what jazz fusion artists have been doing for far longer than Squarepusher has been putting out music. In fact, there are several points on the album where you can actually hear the mechanical band struggle to keep things sounding clean simply because of the physical limitations of the instruments they’ve been rigged to play. We won’t even mention the fact that this robot jam band (lovingly dubbed the Z-Machines) physically resemble something akin to what Bob Marley would have looked like if he were a deformed robot on that sand crawler thing from the first Star Wars movie.
Electronic music has always been invigorating because it is able to surpass the boundaries set by the physical limitations of the human body and the acoustic, sonic palette that he has access to. What Jenkinson has managed to do with Music For Robots
is to produce an album that serves as the ideological antithesis of the idea that sparked its creation; that electronic manipulation of traditional instruments is fundamentally incapable of living up to a human performance. The physical limitations of traditional instruments and the relatively small set of sounds they are capable of producing only become more apparent at the hands of this entirely robotic operation, and the resulting compositions are as soulless as they are boring. Whether this newest Squarepusher EP is Tom Jenkinson simply not caring about his music, playing an elaborate joke on us all, or simply not getting it, Music For Robots
functions as the first embarrassingly terrible album of 2014, and should be avoided by all except those with an extremely morbid sense of curiosity.