s the man justly equated to drill’n’bass, Squarepusher’s recent efforts have been used to resuscitate a sub-genre (and his sound) that by most accounts died back in 1998. This is a sad fact, as drill’n’bass is the sub-genre of choice for music professors to introduce the idea of music editing. With the vindication of such a thought-driven institution, the sound is haunted by its painstaking nature – a place where the musician becomes the programmer. By not allowing a moment of anything considered unclassifiable, a programmer’s premeditation can demolish anything too surreal. The satire and splintered experiments on Go Plastic and Do You Know Squarepusher? render the two albums overly meticulous and hollowed out. Ultravisitor is the push by Squarepusher away from these pedantic excercises, further pushing into the jazz-influences that invigorated Music is One Rotten Note.
By infusing drill’n’bass within a jazz-inflected framework for Music is Rotted One Note, Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) achieved a sense of live-ness again. Songs like “Don’t Go Plastic” used the immediate and performative elements of jazz to balance drill’n’bass’s obsessive (and ultimately dull) isolation. In this stability of performance and precision, Squarepusher’s identity crisis after the death of “his” subgenre drill’n’bass appear to be resolved. Returning to performance as opposed to programming on Ultravisitor, allows Jenkinson to include audience response in both “Circlewave” and “Tetra-Sync” and thereby reconciles the vacuity of the bedroom producer. “Steinbolt” is the starkest of reconciliation, carrying both elements of a live performance and famous Squarepusher head-fuck drum programming with equal measure – questioning Intelligent Dance Music’s denoted listening space (a space often reserved for headphones).
One of the most striking examples of a resolved identity can be found when comparing the album covers for Ultravisitor and Do You Know Squarepusher? Ultravisitor’s (and Jenkinson’s) exposed stare implicates and confronts – a decided contrast to Do You Know Squarepusher’s blank geometric cover. Jenkinson thereby steps firmly outside the etiquette of the bedroom producer and acknowledges his relationship with an audience. The gaze is a throwback to a certain singer-songwriter relationship, and allows Jenkinson an opportunity to reveal rather than merely entertain. By not explicitly playing against his audience, Jenkinson etches an identity of his own that is unhindered by expectations. It’s this acceptance of identity that makes Ultravisitor so much more fascinating than much of his recent work.
The album begins with a statement-of-purpose on the title track. Rather than eschewing a distant sonic palette, Jenkinson uses an earlier vocabulary (more specifically, early 90’s ambient electronic) as a blanket for an otherworldly fusion jazz. “Ultravisitor” carries a structure that reinterprets (and builds) upon a particular era’s sound. The debasing of original structure makes questions of influence appear superfluous. For example, despite sonic similarity to oft-imitated Aphex Twin’s “Heliosphan,” “Ultravisitor” in no way be classified as dance, but will be anyway at your local Border’s store.
This reinterpretation is so engaging that even a reprisal song, “Tommib Help Buss,” gives an opportunity to re-think the approach to electronic music (the track’s first incantation was “Tommib” on Go Plastic and was recently popularized in the movie Lost in Translation). Whereas the original “Tommib” recalled a tweaked melody line that approached Boards of Canada’s sensibility of a wheezing synth, “Tommib Help Buss” undresses even the smallest of digital effects, using only reverb to entrance.
However, many tracks do return to Squarepusher’s trademark drill’n’bass, and many of them fall flatter than his more tangential experiments. “Menelec” and “Distinct Line II” both have the drill’n’bass freak-out, but have none of the similar intensity of the funk-bass extravaganza of “C-Town Smash.” The song’s reckless abandon is infectious, and makes the song’s 90 seconds into a blast of ingenuity, blurring the accepted gap between live-recording and studio.
Although superficially in debt to his earlier jazz album Music is Rotted One Note, Ultravisitor appears to be the first album when jazz can completely mesh with Squarepusher’s canonized style. Rotted One Note took significantly from Miles Davis’ Fusion period and its re-evaluation what jazz instruments could be. Strangely influenced by Davis, Ultravisitor’s creativity comes from examining the electronic genre’s fixation on creating new sonic territory. By returning to a well-known electronic era, and focusing on meshing different strains of style (jazz), Jenkinson appears to change how electronic music can innovate.
This change in perspective presents a shift, symbolized in Jenkinson’s vacant eyes, toward a new way to digest and use electronic music – a way of looking toward different techniques in production (especially looking toward performance). This new approach subverts the genre’s sonic canonization – the frustrating symptom of a genre still pursuing a voice, despite the breadth of recordings. Jenkinson’s subversion creates something similar to a film director’s “genre exercise” – a method in film that oftentimes expands the definitions of a particular genre. The album stretches boundaries beyond the “sub-sub-sub genre” classification scheme, and gives enough room for Ultravisitor to be a frequently incredible experience.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARCH 7 - MARCH 13, 2004
Reviewed by: Nate De Young
Reviewed on: 2004-03-08