Twenty five years is a long time in music. It’s the gap separating ‘The White Album’ and ‘Mr Blobby’. With 2020 being the silver anniversary of Squarepusher, Tom Jenkinson should get a commemorative plate, but instead of porcelain it’s made from gravel and electricity.
Software synthesis wasn’t a thing when the Spymania label released his ‘Conumber E:P’ in 1995, and the early work is accented with loose, roomy snares that can only come from not being plugged into a digital matrix – see ‘Beep Street’ for a good example. When Jenkinson embraced signal processing to become a kind of bass-bazooking Robocop, especially when posing as neon funk outfit Shobaleader One, the mainstream press took him to heart – he was even invited to guest edit a broadsheet’s music section. That’s an impressive curation of a career, especially when compared to the dearth-deluge of Aphex Twin’s output.
So ‘Be Up A Hello’ is an interesting silver anniversary release, because Jenkinson is unplugging again. Bazooka be damned, he’s going back to his Spymania days by digging up his old analogue gear. Cue the time-reverse montage at the end of ‘Donnie Darko’ with people walking backwards, a sunrise sunsetting, a flashing LED helmet replaced by Commodore’s chunky 1980s VIC-20 computer complete with RED WHT BLU colour buttons…
Except that doesn’t do justice to what we hear. There’s nothing like the drunken supper party jazz of ‘Music Is Rotted One Note’. This is still an artist who wants you to feel you’re tumbling down a cobbled street in a washing machine. The beats are here to blister your ears, and there are as many kicks in the sonic groin as ever. I can hear a Nintendo making vigorous love to a nest of snakes as semiquaver acid turns in on itself. I can hear cymbals having a punch-up in a car park as fuzzy harmonies watch in the distance. I can hear the Squarepusher we know.
Yet where his noodly squiggles have served to disrupt in the past, with the possible exception of ‘Vortrack’, they now join the flow beautifully. I use that adverb wisely: opener ‘Oberlove’ forces its busy IDM into gorgeous melodies that pay tribute to the pastorality of Pachelbel and Ry Cooder’s iconic slide guitar. You didn’t expect that in a Squarepusher review, did you? ‘Hitsonu’ develops the melody while its trilling, gaming twitches and comical claps bring us closer to brother Andy’s Ceephax territory. Incidentally, his bro’s playful alacrity on ‘Camelot Arcade’ is a great companion to this. On ‘Terminal Slam’, a smashed hip hop helicopter crash of a track, the tune beneath the tumbling becomes a darker wash that brings in a Clark-esque corrugated bass synth that eases things to a pleasingly purring close. It’s, er, nice.
The as-live ‘Damogen Furies’ in 2015 was Squarepusher’s attempt at a more organic noise, but the atomic-level gate on ‘Rayc Fire 2’ gave us the clue that this was someone still in thrall to precise digitalism. As he turns away from that processing power, Jenkinson is as freed from restriction as Donnie Darko lying on his bed welcoming his certain doom. Just listen to the storm-cloud reverb on ‘Mekrev Bass’ as he lets the track disintegrate only for a spiky speed-bass to wrap everything together again. It’s one of several moments where a distracted diva-like strop raises a smile.
At the centre of the album is his most substantive electronic ballad to date. ‘Detroit People Mover’ is named after the driverless trains that endlessly circle the Michigan city, their existential looping reflected perfectly in the track’s LFO shimmers and plaintive vocodings. It speaks volumes that this beatless masterpiece is the mid-point track, a molten sun for the percussionist planets around it. Let’s not forget that the fleeting ‘Lost In Translation’ ambient theme ‘Tommib’ was nestled towards the end of 2001’s ‘Go Plastic’, which struck me as a little apologetic at the time. No more apologies. The most frenzied tracks on ‘Be Up A Hello’ – ‘Terminal Slam’ and ‘Speedcrank’ – have a definite Shobaleader sheen, but as the former’s constipated cymbal crashes make way for a catchy half-speed synth line, we’re reminded that melody is at the centre of everything.
So 25 years is a long time in music. It’s the gap separating the Tupac-Biggie beef and Snoop Dogg appearing on Carpool Karaoke. For his silver anniversary, Squarepusher has topped his career with a work that looks backwards technologically, yet presses forward with surprisingly fresh dynamism. Take your fancy plate, Tom, you’ve earned it.