Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello (Warp) REVIEW
Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello (Warp) REVIEW
Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson continues to make sporadically brilliant and often maddening “smashed-together” musical concatenations. GARY STEEL examines the problem.
Auditioned on TIDAL Hi-Fi
Listening to Squarepusher can be like when you’re stuck on the receiving end of a torrent of excess verbiage from a nerd on speed at a dull party after all the interesting people have left, including your ride home. In theory, Tom Jenkinson’s music is clever, witty, intricate and an intriguing concatenation of drum’n’bass and jazz and whatever else has been shoved into the steaming cauldron that day. In reality, it’s often less than the sum of its parts.
Which is really annoying, because when he’s on fire, Jenkinson’s music really is something. For instance, his 2001 single ‘Red Hot Car’ is a genuine left-field funk-fusion classic that should be able to get any party started, but also makes great listening fodder. The track has a bump’n’grind groove to kill for and it even sounds good.
The ongoing problems with Squarepusher are manifest, but many of them could be easily fixed. For one, even in 2020 he continues to forge tracks that sound like every inch of juice has been drained from them. Maybe his engineer is a vampire or an incessant giver of head, but there’s little evident dynamic range or bottom end on the majority of Squarepusher recordings, which makes his work sound smaller than life.
I guess this must be an aesthetic choice on Jenkinson’s part – either that, or he’s got cloth ears – because he could so easily enlist someone like Clark (also from the Warp label stable) to add sonic depth and spatiality and firepower to his sound. It’s a major point because with some sonic integrity his music might really bloom.
Jenkinson has apparently gone back to the primitive electronic machinery he was using in the ‘90s for this album, which might in part explain why it sounds so flat, especially compared to the rather shiny, propulsive sound of 2015’s Damogen Furies.
Still, he remains a figure of some significance to his fans, and his popularity over the years has allowed Jenkinson to indulge in detours like a solo bass album and the inevitable orchestral renditions of his work. Be Up A Hello, however, is a return to his “classic” electronic style with its chattering and smashing “pots and pans” drum’n’bass getting quite frantic at times. There’s certainly less evidence of his own, jazzy bass playing here and more overt use of electronic effects. At times it almost feels like the kind of dark, “boys only” drum’n’bass that was so prominent in the mid-to-late ‘90s, but more finicky with it.
Be Up A Hello seems like an attempt to bring together all of the elements of electronic music that interested him in the ‘90s and update them to express his own musical evolution. ‘Terminal Slam’ (for which there’s a rather disappointing video set in Tokyo, on which the various electronic artifices of buildings pixelate and mutate) is as good an example as any to explain where Jenkinson’s head is at these days, although it’s one of the darker (and the longest) tracks. While the clatter of the “drums” dominates, the piece begins with a section featuring spooky nocturnal synth. Later on, the “keyboards” play out some unusually melodic, almost Boards Of Canada-style parts that contrast nicely with the percussive fiddly-sticks.
On opening track ‘Oberlove’, his seemingly new-found interest in conventional melodic figures is explicit with its positively anthemic tune that sounds like perfect incidental music for an oddball romantic drama.
Too often, Squarepusher sounds like a guy playing fretless bass to a bunch of presets, and all the music can really do is go round in circles. It’s a long way from the genuinely intricate and infinitely subtle world of (for instance) Bernd Friedman. For all its failings, however, Jenkinson is capable of throwing out surprises and occasionally comes up with something wondrous, and his ardent fans will no doubt enjoy this album for reminding them of his origins and (probably) why they liked him in the first place. Guess I’ll just keep on watching and waiting (and listening).