Squarepusher: IDM Revisited

Despite the somewhat elitist underpinnings of the name itself, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) spawned some of the greatest artists working within electronic music during the 90s. Initially introduced as a kind of rave-music for home listening with the release of the Warp-label’s by now somewhat legendary Artificial Intelligence-compilation (1992) – with its iconic cover-image of a robot asleep in an armchair with records of Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd laying on the floor – IDM eventually became recognized worldwide, with its primary roots in the UK and later the US. It is a genre with particular importance to me as well, insofar as other than trip-hop it was for a long time the only link I had to the rave-scene – and also served as my gateway into so-called ‘electronica’, or electronic music. I think the reason for why these two offshoots of rave made it to Sweden in the way that they did was precisely because they were less tied to local scenes in the same ways as, say, jungle – and therefore worked equally well in culturally remote locations like Sweden.

Today, IDM is basically a thing of the past, with most artists either no longer active or releasing music quietly, and those acts that still operate at the forefront of electronic music – Aphex Twin and Autechre in particular – do so because they have managed to break free from the aesthetic formulas associated with IDM and done something that is more their own. The major IDM-labels have also broadened their rosters of acts, with Warp also putting out indie-rock and hypnagogic pop nowadays (among other things) and Planet Mu being crucial for releasing several important footwork-albums over the few past years. And indeed, listening to IDM today I often get the feeling of retro-futurism: that is, of a past future that once seemed exciting, but today no longer feels particularly subversive to the electronic everyday (although this is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to IDM).

The concept of retro-futurism is also apt for describing the music of Tom Jenkinson, or Squarepusher, today – for me one of the ‘big four’ of the classical IDM-acts on Warp (with Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Boards of Canada). Yet unlike the other three, Jenkinson’s music often struggled(/struggles) with finding a proper form as it has moved between acid, jungle, techno, rock, and jazz-fusion throughout his roughly 25 year-long career. It is not the genre-jumping itself that is a problem here – after all, Aphex Twin has covered just as many throughout his own career – but rather that more often than not the syntheses between them do not work that well, which makes for a somewhat uneven body of work. Exceptional when at its best, but too often a bit bland – particularly when compared to fellow travellers Aphex Twin’s and Autechre’s discographies.

I first came into contact with Squarepusher’s music through what probably is his most well-known track because of its accompanying music video: ‘Come on My Selector’ (1998), with its stunningly bizarre video directed by Chris Cunningham. Taking place at night in a Japanese psych-ward for kids – and following the escape of one of its female inmates, who successfully manages to perform a brain swap between a dog and one of the security guards – the video not only exhibits the same kind of dark humour as Cunningham’s videos for Aphex Twin, but it is also a true masterpiece in synchronicity between image and sound – with the events of the storyline being perfectly matched to the track’s frenetic rhythms (it is almost as if the video was made before or in tandem with the music). The song itself is also one of those rare occasions where Squarepusher’s electronic- and bass-work come together into a brilliant whole.

The other standout-track from Squarepusher’s early to mid-phase for me is ‘My Red Hot Car’, which – if ‘Come on My Selector’ feels a lot like Aphex’s ‘Come to Daddy’ – I have always thought of as his ‘Windowlicker’, with its bizarre sexual undertones reminiscent of those on the Aphex-track (imagine if Cunningham had made a video for this song as well). In its ‘radio-friendly’ version, most of its chaotic midsection has been removed, unlike on the album-version, which leaves the mayhem between the pop-intro and outro intact. The contrast between pure electronic experimentation and more melodic passages also stands at the core of the album that ‘My Red Hot Car’ opens – the phenomenal Go Plastic (2001), which is almost exclusively composed of synthetic sounds and also one of Jenkinson’s most complex albums as it powerfully blends melodic fragments with his characteristic high-speed breakbeat freak-outs, and brutal, open-ended digital arrangements. For me, this is when Jenkinson is at his best; for even though he certainly is a great (self-taught) bass-player as well, it is nevertheless his inhuman breakbeat-arrangements and digital mayhem that in my view constitute the most subversive aspects of the Squarepusher-project as a whole. This is indeed where Go Plastic really excels for me – in contrast to the smoother jazz-fusions of Hard Normal Daddy (1997) and the way too long Ultravisitor (2004), which moves somewhat uncomfortably between electronica and bass-pieces without ever really marrying the two convincingly. The record that most compellingly showcases Jenkinson’s skills with live instrumentation is in fact the somewhat uncharacteristic Music is Rotted One Note (1998), which has a very distinctive live feel insofar as it completely ditches the breakbeats and digital chaos of his other early albums in favour of a more traditional jazz- and electroacoustic sound played live without sequencers or samplers. Very different as it may be, this is actually (after Go Plastic) the strongest of Jenkinson’s earlier albums as I see it – as it gave him the space to fully explore the jazz-side of his musicianship without blending it with his more frenetic electronic arrangements – and surely a standout record within the IDM-tradition (it if even can be characterized as such).

Following Ultravisitor, Squarepusher fell off my radar for a long time – partly because I listened to other things, but also because the albums between 2006 and 2010 all are pretty generic IDM and also saw him take a somewhat unconvincing turn towards a retro-futurist kind of space-rock; first with Just a Souvenir (2008) and later with his band Shobaleader One, which released its first record in 2010 and a live-album with covers of older Squarepusher-tracks in 2017. For someone who has made it his mission to push electronic music towards the future, Shobaleader’s music sounds disappointingly retro – somewhat like an old-school soft-rock or disco-pop band, or what Daft Punk perhaps would have sounded like if their roots had not been in house music. And it is indeed difficult not to think about Daft Punk when listening to Shobaleader, given their similar-looking robot-masks and vocoder-usage; but whereas that aesthetic still had something to it when Daft Punk first appeared, in this case it just feels very outdated (just like the decision to cover older Squarepusher-songs with a live band). A similar deadlock permeates Jenkinson’s 2014-collaboration with the Z-Machines – a band of robots (including a guitarist with 78 fingers and a drummer with 22 arms) constructed by a Japanese team – which sounds interesting at a superficial glance, but the problem with the EP that documented the project is that the music on it sounds just like music any human band could have played equally well. There is nothing on the EP that suggests that this is music played by inhuman machines, which indeed is a disappointment insofar as what was most exciting when first listening to Squarepusher and his peers was how they augmented sonic aesthetics beyond the human mainly through their inhuman programming, rather than – as in this case – making the inhuman sound more human.

But whereas the Shobaleader-project feels pretty unconvincing, Jenkinson’s two latest solo-albums to date – Ufabulum (2012) and Damogen Furies (2015) – are more interesting to me in that they mark a return to the pure electronic breakbeat-frenzy of Go Plastic. This is not to suggest that these records do not suffer from a similar kind of retro-futuristic aura as those of Shobaleader – they certainly do, given that they essentially sound like the kind of then-futuristic but now familiar IDM that Squarepusher initially became known for in the mid-90s (albeit in higher resolution) – but they nevertheless still exhibit an energy and excitement that is completely lacking from Shobaleader given the complexity of the arrangements and the compelling LED-show that Jenkinson used in sync with the music when playing live around this time. In other words, it may be familiar but it is well-made and really fun to listen to even though it probably arrived about 15-20 years too late to have any major cultural impact. Yet in contrast with Shobaleader’s simulations of past futures, the music on Ufabulum and Damogen Furies invoke feelings of what the future once was actually like – and this is certainly worth remembering in today futureless culture.

To access the Squarepusher-playlist in the video archive, click here.

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