I’m not sure this is an album of original material. Maybe I’m wrong, because no one else seems to be picking up the vibe that Ultravisitor is mostly an album of cheesy live jams and really heavily messed-up versions of songs from previous releases. But I can hear it. I can hear it more often than not. Which is what’s really frustrating for me, because I really wanted this to be my opportunity to applaud and encourage the overwhelmingly creative and innovative output of Britain’s Tom Jenkinson.
I have all Squarepusher’s albums, and I rarely agree with the early reviews of each album, which have been mostly negative. People talk now about that stylistic transition Squarepusher made with Music Is Rotted One Note as if the prevailing tenor of the time was in synch with today’s voices in the declaration of the album as a masterpiece. I keep reading reviews where people are essentially saying, “Why can’t he go back to his crazy fusion music like Music Is Rotted One Note?” But when that album came out, the reviews were awful. People wanted more massive bpm and funky bass, not analog drums and fusion jazz nonsense. People thought it was interesting, but rather immature, and didn’t stack up to the leading electro-acoustic improvisers of the day. And, well, they might have been right. Yet, that hasn’t stopped critics from lamenting the entire rest of his career for its return to the digital domain.
The minority view among early critics about Music Is Rotted One Note has now become the norm. Because of this weird, enduring obsession with one Squarepusher album, a lot of his visible advancements in technique and structure have gone unnoticed for having been done with computers. It’s meant that Go Plastic is still living in this critical vacuum that runs completely opposite to public tastes. People really love Go Plastic. It could be the most significant album he’s ever released. It is by far the most demanding, hilarious, structurally superb, and textured album Jenkinson has ever released, and Ultravisitor would be almost as impressive if it weren’t for the nagging feeling that the album isn’t quite original.
I think what’s happened is that a certain generation of critics has finally caught on to what Squarepusher is up to, and Ultravisitor synthesizes so many of his disparate musical efforts that it’s hard not to be charmed by the confidence. But it’s easy to see the popular achievement of Ultravisitor as a “leap” when you’ve dismissed the last few albums. So, while Ultravisitor is still a great listen, it’s going to be hard for any picky fan not to feel a little peeved by some of the glaringly abundant derivations from earlier work. Here’s a breakdown of how the album goes:
The opening track, “Ultravisitor”, is a pretty decent old-style bag of steeping percussion that squeals for a while and then cools down, and sort of tastes like Hard Normal Daddy with a lot of Feed Me Weird Things added.
The second track, “I Fulcrum”, is a freshly-boiled serving of noodling straight from the bucket of Music Is Rotted One Note, only now with sounds of a live crowd going a bit hyperbolic over Jenkinson’s ability to slap bass.
“Iambic 9 Poetry” is easily slotted into Squarepusher’s Selection 16 phase, commonly referred to as his “not-quite fusing fusion”. This time around it’s analog acid jazz drum loops and squiggly bass from his live sessions, fused to the sizzling hard-drive force of his mastery in electronic invention. It’s interesting, but not as perverse as “Tomorrow World”.
“50 Cycles” is essentially a vastly improved version of that weird, anti-pop robotic British rap song from Do You Know Squarepusher. However, where the earlier version felt intriguing, this is a truly brilliant track now.
Okay, the sixth track, “Menelee”, starts off by returning to Jenkinson’s affection for Indonesian Gamelan drumming that he flirted with on Budakhan Mindphone. The sounds eventually turn into “Hard Normal Daddy”. I swear, this is the track “Hard Normal Daddy” with heavy make-up on. It’s still scary and sexy, just a bit more garish here. I can’t figure out if it’s some kind of valuable, self-reflexive philosophy that allows Squarepusher to sample so heavily from his earlier work, or if he’s just lazy, and that’s the problem facing this record. It’s impossible to know.
“C-Town Smash” is once more a vaguely embarrassing bit of anecdotal bass-flopping in front of a seemingly live audience. It goes nowhere ravishing and quickly segues into “Steinbolt”, a disconnected track that accidentally rips off DJ Scud, don’t ask me why.
The “An Arched Pathway” / “Telluric Piece” / “District Line II” triptych is a far more successful composite of studio applications and live improvisations than anywhere else on Ultravisitor, and perhaps shows the best way Jenkinson might push it, if he was going to investigate another whole album of loose, bacterial ambience like Music Is Rotted One Note. That is, it could be good, if Jenkinson were to do the album without reconstituting so many of the actual sounds from previous records, as this triad does. Seriously, compare “District Line II” to “GO! Spastic” and you’ll hear it. This is the same music. It’s a little depressing.
Surely, a good argument can be made for self-sampling, and Squarepusher has been known to do it before and I’ve accepted it, and the entire genre is, after all, staked by the ubiquitous “Amen” break, so a lot of me is very willing to accept the heavy recycling on Ultravisitor, and really love that it’s such a pure development based on the last album, which, speaking linearly, was a live recording you’ll remember. Now, a lot of Ultravisitor has introduced to the Squarepusher identity a kind of bootleg acoustics. It’s a cool idea to use the bootleg sounds inspired by the last album as inspiration for the new work, and “Circlewave” is a perfect example of how this can succeed. The track is a basic drum-and-organ jam that just goes on and on and is quite simple, but the outdoorsy sound of the mix makes it seem rare and special and more unique. That uniqueness comes naturally to bootlegs, as they retain a fingerprint in the sound and the banter that makes its performance unlike any other. It’s definitely a “eureka” moment for Squarepusher to see how this live element gives his sound a far more intimate and discreet esthetic, while allowing his roots to stay in the cold, robotic drum ‘n’ bass.
Meanwhile, “Terra-Sync” will sound familiar to singles collectors or anyone who has the extended version Hard Normal Daddy with the EPs attached to it. The long, twisty acid hits of the cymbals and the loafing ambient score over top suddenly busts out into a sampled live drum encore that succeeds almost in spite of itself for the fact that the transition was so well done. Still, the lingering sense is that we’ve heard the song before.
“Tommib Help Buss” is a tender, isolated bit of melody that feels in the mood for love, with ambitions on getting all up into Scarlett Johansson. And I’m not sure how many people go to Squarepusher for Latin Classical guitar plucking, but way to go Squarepusher for giving it to us anyway. Romantic guitar is a cute way to end an album coming from someone frequently pigeon-holed in the musical genre of “drillcore”.
The last track, “Every Day I Love”, is a final nightcap of classic Latin guitar, for no good reason but to signal that we’re approaching the next chapter in Squarepusher’s career, when he includes adult contemporary in his genre-busting. This new sentimentality is confirmed by the cover and promotional art of Tom Jenkinson photographed as a distinguished suffering artist. The stark portrait of the composer is a radical shift in Squarepusher’s judgement of the esthetic of electronica, whose roots are in anonymity and robotic inhumanism. So here’s the brooding and sincere cover art response to Aphex Twin’s ironic and exaggerated cover portraits. The music, for all its new existential grime, is still incalculably more original than ninety percent of what’s out there. It’s just that within the trajectory of Squarepusher’s discography, this feels like a drab plateau. I’ve always enjoyed Squarepusher’s albums for how well they evade critical appreciation, so perhaps this has been my turn to feel wrongly skeptical. I hope so.