TISAR: Squarepusher – Ufabulum

So, as is tradition, the next few weeks of posts will be from previous contributors; the requirement was for them to discuss a piece of music they have heard for the first time this year, or failing that offer some sort of reflection on the year that has passed, perhaps with reference to music. I am going to kick things off today in a traditional music review manner, with a little bit about a musician who is described by Allmusic as ‘Drill’n’Bass/Experimental Jungle’.


So I decided to write a straight up review this year. Normally I do something stupid, like rearrange it Burroughs-style, but I am my own worst cliché, so I have sidestepped that this year, or tried to. Squarepusher (real name Tom Jenkinson) is one of those artists whose new work I listen to regardless of what is said of it in the press. I realise that an approach to finding music that is rooted in the opinions of critics is perhaps a dumbass one, but I sometimes tend towards this; I put it down to laziness, or better yet, the fact I have forced myself in to a corner where I have to re-listen to the entirety of The Disintegration Loops so that I can make sweeping claims about how it relates to Bergsonian notions of the recollection-image. Anyway, this approach – of ‘regardless listening’ – has served me badly with Squarepusher, so I don’t know why I stick to it. The last album I fully enjoyed was Ultravisitor, and that came out a while back, with the intervening years offering patchiness (Hello Everything had a few good tracks), some sort of half-baked improve (Just a Souvenir), and general crap with a ‘full band’ (Shobbbbbbbbaleaddddder or whatever it is). Still, I stuck with it, and I feel like Ufabulum sees a bit of turning point, by which I mean a returning point….sorry…I won’t do that again

However, I also feel like an explanation is required as to ‘why Squarepusher?’, because a lot of people find Squarepusher really irritating. As with many of my most cherished musical attachments, my love of Squarepusher is tied to memory, specifically the memory of buying my first real piece of electronic music-making equipment, the Korg EA-1, an ‘analogue modelling synthesiser’; the first time I tried it out, if memory serves, was at Stuart Pearce’s house, in his living room, with me and Lee randomly bashing away at keys and twisting knobs (INSERT PUN), the sound coming out through a small and appallingly fuzzy amplifier. I bought it partially to augment what we were doing in tomfire, but also because I thought I could produce something like Go Plastic, or Feed Me Weird Things (Go Plastic has a track on it called ‘Greenways Trajectory’, and I of course allied this with the road where I lived at the time, in the sort of facile way that I did, and continue to do, with things). Obviously I had little hope of replicating anything like the jiggery-buggery of those releases, but it was nice to dream. On Ufabulum, which is populated by all sorts of analogue synth lushness and the expected but suitably rearranged helter-skelter beats that Jenkinson has almost trademarked, there is a synth line in the song ‘Dark Steering’ – it kicks in at 2mins 15seconds or thereabouts – which sounds exactly like the EA-1, a sort of rounded sawtooth (which isn’t the same as a sine wave) which is used as a kind of solo melody before the beat drops out, hovers, kicks back in at twice the BPM. This I like, despite it not actually being an EA-1[1].

I have enjoyed Ufabulum on two levels; the first is listening to each track as a complete piece of work, and perhaps comparing it to the live show of which there is a lot of footage on Youtube (many lights, a sort of Daft Punk/Orbital crossover that is resolutely not for epileptics); the second is trying to take individual elements apart and, from that, attempt to work out how it is all assembled. The second part is unlikely to work out, as trying to deconstruct something like the hi-hat and snare patterns and effects on ‘Energy Wizard’ is about as impossible as it is ‘to cut fire into steaks, or draw water with a fish-net’[2]. Again, part of this is because I have been doing a lot of deconstruction for my thesis, so I’ve started applying it elsewhere, but also because I am interested in the mechanics of the construction of these tracks. There is nothing organic about them, no slips, no deviation that isn’t a considered move and this sort of concentration and application I see as astounding, purely from the viewpoint that I apply almost none of these things to my own work. And the bass is pretty hefty the whole way through (I got a decent pair of headphones for Christmas), so I can my usual trick of enjoying mangled dance music at home, but not in a public arena.

In terms of a more straight-forward assessment, ‘Stadium Ice’ is a shit track, largely because of what sounds like a tinny guitar thrown in there (except Jenkinson says he made this entirely through programming – I read interviews if not reviews – so apparently not), and the fact it could be used as the soundtrack to Star Ocean or Infinite Undiscovery or any other subpar Japanese RPG[3]. The standouts are the opening track, ‘4001’, the beatless ‘Red in Blue’ which sits slap bang in the middle, and ‘Dark Steering’, which sounds like it might have something to do with Dune, though before you get a grasp on where it might work Jenkinson pulls it to pieces, as he does with most tracks. The ending of that track is also particularly nice. I was reminded of Akira for much of the record, mainly because there are so many towering filter sweeps which sound like motorbikes. It’s very neon-future-city-in-ruins, which again appeals to my baser-dystopia instincts.

I’m not really sure exactly what I am trying to say with all of this, except that I’m happy that Squarepusher is back to being good at putting together beats and synths, and that it reminds me of when I started making electronic music; it’s perhaps a bit of a slog for people who aren’t all that interested in Jenkinson’s trajectory as a musician, but for me it’s a nice break from listening to Francisco Lopez over and over again, with the appropriate blindfold, and then bleating on about how it makes sense in the context of some Russian literary theorist no-one gives a shit about.

[1] Wikipedia tells us that his official website used to list gear including King Tubby-style spring reverbs, Akai samplers, (S950 for early work, S6000 for later work), a Roland SH-101 synthesizer, a Roland TB-303 bassline synthesizer, a reel-to-reel tape machine, an Eventide Orville unit for digital processing, Reaktor using only home made algorithms, a “DSP4000”, a Yamaha sequencer, a MackieDesk, a Sine wave generator, an Octave “Cat” synth, some AKG414 mics and Home made + AKG analogue reverb units, as well as a DAT recorder.

[2] Bit of Rabelais there, just for the sake of a pointless and supertenuous Bakhtinian reference (I’m supposed to be writing about chronotopes at the minute, but I’m doing this): Wilstach, F. J., (1916). A Dictionary of Similes. Little, Brown, & Co., Boston.

[3] I actually like both of these games.


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