Review Summary: Feed me interesting things
While you’re free to question just how it got to this point and who the key players might arguably be, there’s no denying that electronic music has entered a much heralded and highly publicized second renaissance of sorts. At least as far as the commercial world of music is concerned, this first golden era began with the arrival of arena-sized acts such as The Prodigy, Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers – this well-documented ascendancy (the likes of which had never been seen outside of your more traditional rock and metal scenes) was unerringly pushed towards its inevitable breaking point by MTV journalists and the like the world over, giving rise to the ubiquitous “electronica” in the process. As much as it was about the music, it was also the grand-scale theatrics of these groups in a live environment that precipitated such attention and acclaim. So it’s perhaps no small surprise then that these same groups, still pumping out the same rave-revival material that saw them become media juggernauts in the mid-to late nineties, would resort to the live album format in an attempt to remind their now middle-aged fans just how incendiary they can be, and to of course attract a whole new generation of saucer-eyed dance merchants in the process. All three of the mentioned acts have resorted to this tactic over the last couple of years; even Orbital’s return from hibernation wasn’t announced with Wonky
, but rather a series of extremely successful performances designed to shake them loose of their self-imposed limbo.
For the artists who have made careers out of restless habits however, this resurgence in popularity has proved to be a hurdle that few have managed to navigate. Some have embraced the change; μ-Ziq ’s Planet Mu label, once home to such destructive and versatile talents as Luke Vibert, Jega and Venetian Snares managed to find room to accommodate the increase in demand for dubstep (releasing Mary Anne Hobb’s genre-defining Warrior Dubz
showed that Mike Paradinas was still a tastemaker of the highest regard), and now almost exclusively deals in house music and all its various affiliations (chief among them being the already bastardized variant of Chicago footwork). For a group of like-minded individuals who inadvertently spawned, and subsequently rebelled against such an amorphous tag as “intelligent dance music”, their persistence to avoid stereotype has perhaps been their undoing in this new great age of electronic camaraderie. Tom Jenkinson’s chief project Squarepusher has been one such act; never one to embrace complacency, his thirst for the abstract has seen him floundering in the wake of the recent big electronic boom. Bass guitar noodling and an ill-advised turn at integrating his acid-junglism into a full band are just some of the ways that Jenkinson has attempted to remain a recognizable name.
, his first “proper” album since 2008’s Just A Souvenir
comes amidst the wake of not just a new generation of dancers waking up to the lingering after-effects of designer drugs and the burnt-in stench of smoke machines, but also Squarepusher’s rediscovered passion for constructing 100% pure electronic music. So in that respect should Ufabulum
be seen as a labor of love, a passion project pieced together by an artist once again happy to be composing the kind of music that not only defined him, but an entire spectrum of hardcore ravers. The reality is far more depressing however; while there’s the expected and inevitable sluggishness to be found from any artist attempting to patch up such an absence, too often does the album feel like little more than a response to the simplified nature of today’s more popular dance exports. It’s a response that doesn’t act so much as an inverse, but rather chooses to embrace its lackluster surroundings. Gone are the almost free jazz-levels of insanity, the seemingly improvisational hardcore idm that saw fans paint Jenkinson as a kind of mythical wizard; nothing here feels instinctual by a long shot, but rather a deliberate and obvious attempt at apparent marketability. Tracks like ‘The Metallurgist’ and ‘303 Scopem Hard’ attempt to reconvene Jenkinson’s psychotic acid maladies, but they’re merely shadows of their influences. Sinewy percussion stutters and breaks over a foundation of sampled bits and bytes (a dying processor here, a burping modem there) but it all feels just a little flat and lifeless. While there’s an unmistakable feel of groove burnt into the mix that in the past has always been absent from his more schizophrenic oddities, it still feels like Squarepusher is just going through the motions at this point.
Granted that it’s been some years since Jenkinson has attempted to push the boundaries of how much sound one can get out of a computer, but what once seemed like second nature now feels like a forced attempt. It’s a bit like hearing Metallica in 2012 attempting to be Metallica in 1983 - the passion might still be there, but regrettably the parts have aged and mellowed in the interim. And while Ufabulum
certainly doesn’t show Squarepusher at his most mellow, it’s certainly an exercise in restraint and accessibility. Opening track ‘4001’ begins in a rather pedestrian fashion, with Jenkinson slowly teasing out glacial melodies over a glitchy drum and bass laden beat. He attempts to cool the rising temperature with a veneer of melodious ambience, but it’s such a thin sheen of manufactured gloss that instead of acting as a kind of counterpoint it ends up simply becoming entangled in the ferocity. ‘Unreal Square’ is more of the same, though this time Squarepusher attempts to carve out something a touch more anthemic, employing the same type of mangled cut and paste hooks that have made a household name out of Sonny Moore.
It’s not until ‘Red And Blue’ where things start to get interesting, as Jenkinson shifts into minor gear and carves out a dark-synthesizer laden piece of classical ambience that echoes back and forth between Aphex Twin and David Bowie’s Low
. Strategically placed as the closer to the vinyl release’s first side, it’s a humbling melange of mythology and history, a kind of reel-to-reel hymn of electronic funeral music. ‘Drax 2’ is also something of a welcome relief as well, with its eerie builds and ghostly notes that duck and weave against the shuffling hi-hats of his lumbering beat. As one of the only tracks on the album that refuses to reveal all its secrets from the outset, by default does it become the most enriching; even when Jenkinson throws in his trademark rippling strands of electricity to shake up the monotony does the track’s subtle weave still manage to hold true. It’s a sharp cry from the electro power ballad-esque ‘Stadium Ice’ and the almost farcical ‘Energy Wizard’, which might very well be the soundtrack to some gaudy imported early morning cartoon show. But then of course there’s ‘Dark Steering’….
As perhaps the most “normal” offering on the album and the one track that seems the most influenced by the world that Squarepusher now finds himself in, it’s of no surprise that ‘Dark Steering’ would be picked as the means to an introduction. With its steady pace and virus-like infecting groove, it’s certainly the most immediate that Squarepusher has ever been, with its chopped to bits electro and groovy underswing. Its jump into race car circuit ferocity is no less obvious than it was first time around though, it’s merely the only road available for a track that predicates itself under the most obvious of foundations. And strangely, sans kinetic lighting the track finds itself strangely lacking in the vitriol that the supporting video seemed to inspire; which brings us back to the concept of the long in the tooth electronic act attempting to reclaim lost mileage through live performance. Reports are already coming in that Squarepusher’s live presentation of Ufabulum
is an experience of the mind-blowing variety, but for those of us unable to catch such an extravagance, we end up with what seems to be only half of the completed product.
With Amon Tobin’s recent ISAM
project, the live show was created as a means for Tobin to express his intentions even further, all information available regarding Ufabulum
seem to indicate that both album and live show were created simultaneously – rather than extension or accompaniment, but instead the other half of the experience. This is a rather hollow way of presenting material, the idea that the music can only be sustained by the kinetic balladry of a thousand flashing lights. And the reality is that on its own, the music simply doesn’t add up to anything remarkable. Ufabulum
is perhaps not a terrible album in any respect, but at the same time it simply is an incredibly boring one.