Squarepusher, nee Tom Jenkinson, is one of electronic music’s true mad scientists. While not necessarily as “out-there” as Aphex Twin or as on-the-nose bombastic as Skrillex, Squarepusher’s output has always been intense in its own way, combining jazz and electronic in unique, encompassing ways.
Ufabulum finds him riding the EDM wave a little harder than on previous albums. Jenkinson’s always been a bit of a jazz nut — previous albums would include brief displays of virtuosic dexterity on his primary instrument, the electric bass, before zooming back into the stratosphere. Ufabulum tips more heavily back into the glitchy electronic realm.
Jenkinson’s always been an uncompromising artist. (Side note: is there any other word in the music critic lexicon that simultaneously celebrates an artist’s commitment to his own vision and sets him up for some kind of criticism?) But, as with any similarily devoted musician, that works against him just as much as it works for him. While Ufabulumhas its moments of real beauty and visceral thrill, large chunks of it feel same-y, as if the same intricate tapestries of bleeps, blips and bloops have been copy-pasted from other songs and dropped over new synth patches or drum breaks.
Album opener “4001” starts with one of Jenkinson’s now-familiar chopped-up d’n’b beats before layering in airy synths. The track builds with the usual array of twitchy snth jabs before dropping into a truly lovely theme at the two-minute mark. It’s simultaneously dense and airy, and Jenkinson knows a hook when he comes across one. He rides the theme for a minute before launching into a new phrase. “4001” is easily the highlight of the album, and as Jenkinson restates that beautiful theme, you’re left gaping over whether or not he’ll be able to top it.
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t, really. “Unreal Square”‘s rinky-dinky NES hook is quirky, but the shoehorned-in nods to dubstep are more grating than appealing. Dubstep’s bombast works against the needlepoint finery of Jenkinson’s music. It’s like watching a world-renowned surgeon try to perform brain surgery with a machete.
“Stadium Ice” and “Energy Wizard” are both nice changes of pace. They feel more meditative and expansive than the previous two tracks. “Stadium Ice” unearthes some vintage synth sounds that sound nearly soothing after the harsh, circuit-board meltdown of “Unreal Square”, and it benefits from Jenkinson’s jazzy leanings. The backing chords lurking low in the mix are sophisticated and lovely. “Energy Wizard” is a mid-tempo, major-key number that sounds like the DJ system at an ’80s prom exploding. (I mean that in a good way.)
The farthest departure comes in the contemplative, rubato “Red in Blue”, which sounds like an outtake from the soundtrack of an excellent mid-’80s John Carpenter movie, or possibly something Wendy Carlos cooked up in her spare time. It’s an atmospheric number and acts as a lovely palate cleanser, divvying up the two sides of the album with pillowy synths.
Ufabulum stumbles a bit on side two. “The Metallurgist,” 303 Scopem Hard,” and “Drax 2” all drag. At the 30th glitchy breakdown, you’re tempted to exasperatedly exclaim, “I GET IT.” That said, “Dark Steering” is another highlight — Jenkinson uses synths to approximate the gear-shifting sounds of a motorcycle, giving the track the flavor of a Tron race scene or (given the album’s seeming focus on late ’80s-early ’90s video game timbres) the Sega Genesis game Road Rash.
Album closer “Ecstatic Shock” is… well, it’s another Squarepusher track. If you can make it this far through Ufabulum, then fuck it, I trust you to come up with your own decisions about it. (I think it’s great, but lord, it is exhausting to come up with any insights about the 10th tweaky, bleepy headphone masterpiece on an album after listening to the whole thing.)
At 50 minutes, Ufabulum is a little exhausting and monotonous to be declared a masterpiece. But chunks of it are quite brilliant and exciting, so it’s better to take it exactly as it is: a Squarepusher record, through and through. The wheel, bleeps, bloops, and all, hasn’t been reinvented, though occasionally it still spins thrillingly.