To a producer like myself, an artist like Squarepusher, aka. Tom Jenkinson, is a god of sorts. He plays in the big leagues alongside artists like Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares (though some might argue that they play alongside him). His musical and technical capabilities outweigh the vast majority. He’s played his brand of glitchy, jazzy, live drum ‘n’ bass to sold-out audiences worldwide. Known for sporting a bass guitar and button-down shirt on stage, Jenkinson now dons a helmet set with LEDs in front of a large backdrop of more LEDs, programmed by himself, that react to the music.
The changes in apparel match the changes in the music: the live instrumentation of a typical Squarepusher album is gone. Completely gone. Jenkinson himself has stated: “It’s music which is generated purely from programming. There’s no live guitar or drums….” It’s a very risky move for a guy who made a name for himself solely playing live jazz bass to funky drum ‘n’ bass. Thankfully, Squarepusher has been around long enough that critics and fans alike are receptive, comparing “Ufabulum” with 2001′s “Go Plastic,” which also featured a more digital, synthetic sound.
“Ufabulum” is an album of two halves (separated by the unfortunately dull, but forgivable “Red in Blue”): one generally more bright, pop-ish, and accessible (if you’re likely to call Squarepusher ‘accessible’); and the other sinister, monolithic, and disconcerting. It’s a form of A- and B-side, where the mere process of flipping the record means a turning point in musical content. This works both to the album’s advantage and disadvantage; it makes the album dynamic and changing, but also creates an imbalance within the album. Some of the ridiculously heavy, atonal, mind-numbing glitch of a track like “303 Scopem Hard” heavily offsets the uptempo, 80′s-infused sound of a song like “Stadium Ice.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what Jenkinson wanted this album to be: glitchy pop instrumentals, 8-bit throwback, or drill ‘n’ bass/breakcore extravaganza.
If there’s one thing that should be remembered while listening to “Ufabulum,” it’s that the whole thing is one big experiment. Squarepusher has traveled this territory once before, but never in such an unabashedly complex, cold, and purely electronic way. In addition, Squarepusher’s live show is more in tune with his music than ever before. In a recent interview with Electronic Musician, he said, “I’ve worked on graphical, pictorial representations of the sounds… [and] I’m allowing them to [make] analogous journeys back into the music. Say, for instance, if a drumbeat inspires a picture, will that picture then inspire a bassline?” It’s an amazing concept, one that few musicians would be able to execute in appropriate form, but Squarepusher pulls it off successfully, some of the evidence being the music video for “Dark Steering,” a standout track from the album. The end result of this melding between visual and aural is an experience where the viewer/listener is pulled into the music creation process, into the very heart of the hardware, and allowed to see the raw data presented in its most striking form.
“Ufabulum” is an album of many things, but boring it is not. Squarepusher is the conductor of a symphony of electronic madness, driven by a compulsive, mathematical appetite for experimentation. Although poorly-paced in the beginning, the second half of the album delivers in a way that no album has ever done before, with some of the greatest electronic experimentation of the last decade, supported by a musical mastermind with a wall of mathematically and musically programmed LEDs to back him up. Stream the album below, and check out Squarepusher’s Creators Project video to get an idea of just how he works.