[8 April 2014]
Tom ‘Squarepusher’ Jenkinson makes some of the most breathtaking, emotive electronic music ever recorded and/or performed. This should not be news, as he has been blowing my mind since at least 1995’s Feed Me Weird Things and has not really released anything remotely mediocre since that time. Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada seem to receive more glory, and I do not mean to diminish their accomplishments, but for my money, Squarepusher reigns supreme within the Warp Records pantheon. Jenkinson’s secret weapon is jazz—frenetic, warm, relentlessly compelling jazz. It is Jenkinson’s masterful, virtuosic use of free jazz, avant garde jazz, and electro-acoustic music that sets him apart from his more purely electronic contemporaries. Squarepusher’s music has always sounded like jazz for robots. So it shouldn’t come as any real surprise that now, in the year 2014, he has started literally making jazz for robots.
Apparently, a while back, a team of Japanese roboticists led by musical director Kenjiro Matsuo approached Jenkinson and several other musicians about composing some music to be played by a band of robots that they were building. This is not just machine music or computer music; these would be robots built to play physical drums, bass, guitars, etc. The thinking went something like this: robots should be able to shred faster and harder than anyone else, right? So let’s compose some music that is truly shred-worthy and see what these finger-tapping, blast-beating automatons can do. The robo-band came to be called Z-Machines and Jenkinson was quick to see the potential. After the success of his initial composition, “Sad Robot Goes Funny”, Jenkinson apparently decided to turn his new synthetic buddies loose on a whole EP worth of material, titled appropriately Music for Robots.
Here is the intoxicating, glorious irony of this EP: Music for Robots, although written for and performed by actual robots, sounds perhaps more organic, human, and warm than anything Squarepusher has done to date. I have thought to myself many times over the years: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Tom Jenkinson hired some really great musicians to actually play this stuff live? Maybe flush out the most berserk jazz drummer he can find and see if he can actually perform some of these tracks in real time? Maybe add some jazz guitar parts? And Tom could take up bass duties himself… wouldn’t that be something?!” Well folks, Music for Robots is probably as close as we will ever get to a scenario like that, and I am happy to report that it is indeed something. Keep in mind, this is not music for computers, this is music for robots; soulful, hyperactive, possessed by the spirit of Miles Davis, robots.
While undoubtedly technical, and sometimes almost overwhelmingly intense, Music for Robots is nonetheless so much fun to listen to.
Jenkinson’s soulful, earthy, jazz sensibilities come shining though on every track. The listener gets the feeling that Jenkinson’s whimsical imagination is being channeled straight through these man-machines, allowing him to transcend the limitations of the human body. What may have started as a gimmick or goofy ‘gee-wiz’ science project has morphed into one of the most perfect realizations of the Squarepusher sound. There is no doubt that there is a visual component to all of this; check out the YouTube videos of these piston pumping metal beasts and you can appreciate them for purely aesthetic reasons. But Music for Robots is more than capable of standing totally on its own as simply a great collection of music. Short and metallic-sweet, Music for Robots blows by in just over 23 minutes and is gone before you know it, leaving you lunging for the repeat button. At the end of the day, I don’t much care if these are robots, or human musicians playing real instruments, or just Jenkinson cutting and pasting on his computer. This is just wonderful music.