Discussing nostalgia and Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) feels both laughable and unavoidable. Laughable because the genre is relentlessly forward-thinking, avant-garde for the sequencer-savvy who would probably loathe having their work relegated to a segment of VH1’s I Love the ’90s. (Actually, something tells me Richard D. James would love this opportunity at pop culture factoid ubiquity.) In the genre’s heyday, artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and μ-Ziq didn’t seem to be pushing towards an inevitable future as much as they explored the capabilities of circuit board-based music. They mapped out the human brain’s ability to perceive an auditory cannonade of blips and beeps as transcendent art.
Unavoidable because, though much of the music is timeless, it’s hard for me to listen to tracks like B12’s “Hall of Mirrors” without thinking about variegated 3D pipes materializing on the screen of a bulky Gateway computer. Plenty of inventive IDM is being made today, and though much of it has mutated eons past the age of DAT tapes, the foundation laid by the genre’s forebearers is often still apparent. Even the oft-maligned designation IDM sounds as dated as that icky term “progressive house”, though it’s stuck around a lot longer. I suppose because it helpfully categorizes music that innately revolts against categorization. In his Pitchfork review of Aphex Twin’s 2014 comeback album Syro, Mark Richardson accurately captures the state of IDM today: “Syro scans as 1990s in terms of form but is quite modern in its particulars. Music sounded like this in 1996, but it didn’t sound quite this good.”
This Friday virtuoso Tom Jenkinson releases a new Squarepusher album, Be Up a Hello, which, according to Warp Records, “returns to the vintage hardware used in his early ’90s works”. It is being lauded by music-lovers’ superstore Boomkat as “ye olde drill ‘n’ bass of yore” and “his most enjoyable album in decades”.
Jenkinson consistently released albums under the Squarepusher moniker throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and much of it is very good and builds naturally on the stylistic signatures of his 1990s output. It’s unfair to deem Be Up a Hello a return to form, since Squarepusher’s M.O. is a sound in constant flux (see: Hello Everything). In many ways, this is a throwback record sure to be enjoyed by deep-2000s techno purists, with gnarled 4-to-the-floor crankers like “Nervelevers” and “Terminal Slam” deserving strobe-blasted warehouses and cheeky-but-glowing write-ups in Muzik.
The album jolts to a start with “Oberlove”, a frenetic drill ‘n’ bass jamboree with the junglist percussion glitched to tachycardia and the oscillators gushing Day-Glo. Rhythmically, the track resembles the wildest rave-ready percussion on 1995’s “Conumber E:P” and 1996’s “Port Rhombus EP”. However, the richest melodies from those early records have been beefed up to nearly garish proportions here. Whereas the somber chimes on “Port Rhombus” offset an uptempo drum décollage, “Oberlove” splatters synthesized sheen at breakneck velocity, with the melodic swirl often overtaking the elaborate percussive stylings.
Album highlight “Vortrack” is a ghostly breakbeat barrage crammed with hi-hats and dripping slippery acid squelch. Nightmarish synths reverberate within the maelstrom, offsetting gut-hook percussion stabs with puffs and billows of minor-key distress. The uninitiated may only hear chaos. Whereas electronic heads will discern a technically remarkable sound designer upending cities and regurgitating the architecture into jagged shards of stylized wreckage.
Instead of gouging apart Motor City electro on “Detroit People Mover” (which I was hoping for), Jenkinson offers a mid-album ambient respite with lush synth melodies on par with Go Plastic‘s “Tommib”. The record closes with another ambient track, “80 Nodule”, a dissonant specter that depicts waking up alone on the concrete floor of a rave-ravaged warehouse, mistaking the dawn-prompted clear-out for the apocalypse.
A perpetual experimentalist, Jenkinson consistently delivers electronic albums jam-packed with ideas and vibrant tone color, of which Be Up a Hello slots in as yet another example of the creative colossus that is Squarepusher. This record feels especially important, though, because it asserts that what some would consider an outmoded sound palette can still be mined for fresh ideas, that IDM in its golden-age variety has yet to reach its zenith.