Music from the future, now? Or just the insipid mechanical reproduction of sound? When I heard that Squarepusher’s latest release see’s him collaborating with a robotics team from Japan to create a 3 piece band with impossible instrumentation (guitar playing with 78 independent ‘fingers’, drumming with 22 ‘arms’) I know I had a whole host of misgivings going into this review, and felt that the expectations I had from Tom Jenkinson’s body of work were due a kicking: this is a guy who has made some of the most interesting electronic music of the past two decades, always returning to and expanding on the principles of breakbeat, drum and bass, and jazz-inspired progressions and techniques.
Squarepusher has, whether you know it or not, been at the forefront of British music; deserving a place alongside artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre as part of the UK’s habit of producing exceptional talent that goes unrecognised by almost everyone buying records. Consistently seeing off trends and outliving fads, always bringing the same standards of musicianship and thoughtfulness to his releases, Squarepusher records have been essential purchases… See what I meant by expectations?
I know there’s some hyperbole in there, and there will be some people likely to dismiss all the positives that people see in his work as the wittering of a Guardian-friendly, muso-nerd, who’s part of some hipster cult to bring the worst elements of prog-rock into popular dance music. These people are wrong, obviously, but the perception can be hard to fight against when an artist does something like ‘Music for Robots’.
Because, on the surface, this is just the kind of thing people have been accusing artists like Squarepusher of for ages: progressive instrumentation and composition for its own sake. So let me just pose a question: whilst there is an argument that just because you have all the toys in the world at you disposal doesn’t mean you should play with them all at once but if you get the chance, why the hell wouldn’t you?
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of producers who would kill for the latest bit of kit from Roland, or Korg, or that analogue bit that everyone thought was junk in the 80’s. Gear, and exploring it’s possibilities is what’s kept electronic music at the most exciting edge of music since it emerged. Without any new ‘traditional’ instrument to catch on like the solid-body electric guitar did, the only way forward is with the geeks.
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Each of these tracks caught me off guard as it went on: as each one started I felt like the artificiality was too clear, too harsh to work but Jenkinsion’s strengths as a songwriter rescue every one. As each one unfolds the tracks’ melodies and drum patterns make use of the robots’ individual advantages to become these hydra-headed monsters. Quite often a song will use a recognisably simple time signature and elaborate with impossible intervals and drumming, but always keeping the original in mind to return to or reference later.
It’s a testament to Squarepusher’s compositional abilities that my major fear, that it would sound like it was made by predictive programming, was not realised. This record may be titled ‘…for Robots’, but it’s real people who’ve made it happen, beyond all the circuitry boards and high-pressure gas, and if talented people can continue to play with new technologies and bring human qualities to them, then we have nothing to worry about. Except Skynet of course.