Squarepusher: Ufabulum (Warp)
Tom Jenkinson earned his place in the upper echelons of electronic music in the mid 90s with a glut of spastic, near perfectly executed drum & bass albums as Squarepusher, emphasizing both the “drum” and “bass” in ways that were and still are completely unique. His frenetic style of electric bass guitar work and ability to dice and program beats like nobody’s business has mutated over the years, with several more obscure projects that dove headlong into acid (Chaos A.D. being my favorite of those) and a phase of non-electronic music-making (1999’s Music Is Rotted One Note and a few EPs that surrounded it). He even created a “band” for his last album, a weird vocoder pop set that skewed toward downtempo funk more than the crazy breaks that made a name for him. The hype that surrounded his latest album largely stemmed from the anticipation that followed Jenkinson announced a return to entirely electronic production methods, casting off the guitar and bass touches that have nearly always graced his catalogue. Even through his more self-indulgent left turns, I’ve stuck with Squarepusher, because even when the result is slightly less successful it’s usually still interesting and worth a listen. Ufabulum is, I have to admit, very much a return to form. Like fellow Warp veterans Autechre, he’s not exactly blazing the eletronic music trail the way he did in the 90s, and in a way his most surprising music may be in the past, but that’s not to take away from how fucking GOOD this record is. It’s a healthy cross-section of all of the sounds and sensibilities he’s honed over the years, including the tightly crafted drum programming that’s become his calling card and a very nice melodic edge. He’s also managed to touch on some of the jazzy spunk of an album like Feed Me Weird Things along with the jaunty quasi-pop of “My Red Hot Car.” The front half of Ufabulum is stuffed with ideas, many tracks with a distinctly melodic flair. “Unreal Square” is a great play on the bleeping square synth that kicks it off, with a bright melody that’s as infectious as it is annoying. It blossoms into a lush melodic track with a more easy-going swagger until its final act, when faster breakbeats kick in — he exploits to full effect a wild manipulation of spatial depth on specific sounds, going from bone dry to deep reverb sometimes in syncopated bursts. Tracks like “4001” and “Energy Wizard” showcase his knack for sweet and simple melodies, underpinned by complex and unpredictable bass programming, while “Stadium Ice” would probably feel right at home on his 1997 release Hard Normal Daddy if he swapped out the synth bass for his guitar and cast more of a jazz light over the sounds in the arrangement. “Red In Blue” is a beatless wanderer that distinctly breaks the album into halves… Pitchfork more or less dismissed the second half’s darker sprawl compared to the brighter, more vivacious front half, but I beg to differ… they are two sides of the same coin, in my opinion. That a writer would dismiss such an awesomely executed set of tracks because it’s not as “fun” or easy as the first several tracks seems small-minded to me — these tracks may be more difficult, but I think that’s only in the sense that they have less melody at their core. “Drax 2” is probably the most spazzy and elaborate of them all, with a looming sense of dread in its bending overtones and atmospheres while the programming goes ape shit. “Dark Steering” is like The Cure’s “Caterpillar” in a minor mode when its melodic refrain is in action, but there’s so much more to it in the details. He even does a full-on acid throwdown toward the album’s close with “303 Scopem Hard” before tying it all together with the airier synth chorus of “Ecstatic Shock” as a little bit of closing levity. For fans of Squarepusher’s backcatalogue, there’s a lot to love here, even if it consists largely of already explored elements of his disparate catalogue. He juxtaposes them in new ways with nods to current trends like dubstep and its various offshoots without getting mired in anything particularly trendy. His production levels have never sounded so superior, and his voice is still quite unique albeit less surprising that it may have been ten years ago. Really outstanding stuff — I can’t wait to see him blow the roof off the venue when I see him later this month on his first American tour in what seems like forever.