Review Summary: Feed me retro things.
Tom Jenkinson has always been a hard bugger to follow. Ever since his arrival in the music scene in the mid-90s, he’s been one of IDM’s major players and set up standards with his crazy, speedy, technical and yet highly melodic drill n’ bass peppered with bass guitar playing skills that were rooted in jazz. Feed Me Weird Things (1996), Hard Normal Daddy (1997), Big Loada (1997) and Go Plastic (2001) took that formula to varying degrees, but with great results. By then, it seemed as if things couldn’t go wrong for Squarepusher.
Afterwards, things got much harder to follow. Releases got way more uneven and shaky, but it definitely wasn’t because Squarepusher was unwilling to experiment or take chances. If anything, many would say he took too many chances and most of his highly experimental output was received either with indifference or mixed enthusiasm. During last decade, Squarepusher decided to dip his toes in the EDM scene with releases Ufabulum and Damogen Furies, but both releases missed the mark in different ways. Ufabulum showed interesting signs of a new sound, but many of its cuts were pale imitations of the past. On the other hand, Damogen Furies’ new sound developments led to cheesy and corny EDM, where most of the songs resembled each other. All of its best moments were the times where Tom successfully fused this new sound with his old tricks, thus creating his own brand of jazzy nightmare-fueled EDM.
With both recent albums having a much different relationship with the past, Tom goes all in on his past with his new album, Be Up a Hello, which is a direct throwback to Squarepusher’s past. Exit the EDM antics and Squarepusher’s custom-built software, enter the vintage hardware and samplers from the past. But can Squarepusher from 2020 sound like Squarepusher from 1997, and would this approach work well? In true Squarepusher fashion, the answer is “yes, but…”. So expect very little innovation there, but imagination can at least be present.
The elements are almost all there for a vintage Squarepusher reunion party: crazy fast breakbeats, pretty and moody melodies, rave-like anthems and energy… all that’s missing to the party is the live bass playing (which is sadly missing due to him having wrist injuries). But instead of evoking the past from the early releases mentioned above, the album this release reminds me the most of is 2006’s Hello Everything, which came across as a consolidation of powers and a summary to Jenkinson’s sound palette, which came after two very experimental releases: 2002’s Do You Know Squarepusher and 2004’s Ultravisitor. Be Up a Hello serves an almost identical purpose than this album, which definitely makes this release sound more calculated and less spontaneous.
While most of the album revels in darker moods, the first two tracks from the record, Oberlove and Hitsonu, do a very good job at steering the music away from the darkness and shows Jenkinson at his most playful. While not the strongest moments of the album, they stand out in a good way and display Squarepusher at his least confrontational and most jovial. The melodies are upbeat and uplifting, recalling somewhat the EDM approach from last two albums, but with more interesting instrumentation and flair.
For an artist that made his name with violent and frenetic drum n’ bass, the high power moments of this album are surprisingly the tamest and less interesting portions of the album. Lead single “Vortrack” and “Speedcrank” both try very hard to mimic Go Plastic’s highly technical and violent sound, but neither matches the sheer intensity of that record and don’t have the melodic content or memorable themes to stand out, so they just harmlessly hammer away and leave no real impression to the listener. Terminal Slam is a much more successful venture in that heavier sound, benefiting from a much better structure, allowing the piece to breathe with alternating soft/loud passages and the complex drum programming shows a certain elegance missing in some of the album’s other cuts. Nervelevers serves us with a haunting atmosphere and an infectious acid bassline that offers the album an early climax.
The rare hints of a newer Squarepusher sound are heard in the more ambient songs from the album, which ditch the drums and succeed in reaching a cinematic level. Detroit People Mover is an instant highlight and shows how much Jenkinson’s ambient songwriting improved with time. It faintly recalls Feed Me Weird Things’ Goodnight Jade, but the latter song never had the lasting power and the heart-wrenching melodies this new song possess. It carries a feeling of mystery and loneliness that isn’t present anywhere in the album. 80 Ondula fares very similarly, but is shrouded with dread and desolation, stranding the listener in an unsettling decayed urban landscape while drowning in giant swathes of reverb.
Squarepusher’s retro outing is mostly a great album, except when 2020’s Squarepusher tries to lay the beats on thickly and becomes too technical. Jenkinson’s musical horizons have clearly drifted elsewhere with time and this album does a good job demonstrating it. He doesn’t have as good an ear as he used to for chaotic material, but he definitely became a better melodist. While IDM contemporary Aphex Twin’s Syro sounded like a 90s record done with modern techniques and a new ear for composition, Be Up a Hello unfortunately sounds like a 90s record made in 1999. It never reaches the same heights than this other album does, but it’s a good album for what it is. Anyone who liked Squarepusher’s vintage material should definitely give this a listen. If you know what you’re getting into, you’ll have a good time.