Album review

Squarepusher : Ultravisitor
Warp Records

Squarepusher : UltravisitorTo say that Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) makes difficult music rather underestimates the strength of feeling some of his noise-scapes can generate in the unwitting. To come at his music without first erecting some sort of prior foundation of knowledge is likely to cause offence and misunderstanding.
    Jenkinson concerns himself not with any commercial viability, but instead focuses on crazed free jazz and electronic experimentation. At his most conservative he fuses blitzkrieg breakbeats with the sort of glitchy techno that made him a dead-cert for his earlier signing to Rephlex and, since 1995, his contract with Warp. In full challenging flow he pushes his listeners into the realms of incredulity with some of the most cacophonous electronica you're likely to hear. Whether the more esoteric and edgy numbers are created with anything in mind, let alone some kind of tune, is open to debate. What is not open to debate is the openness to freedom of expression that he has. And it is this that must be celebrated.

Ultravisitor is suffused with the kind of ultra-fast drum 'n' bass that, were it human, would be locked up in a high security mental ward. This is to be expected. Then there are moments of sheer aural cruelty. Sometimes the pain is pleasure though. 50 Cycles is the sound of a thousand crystals of pure evil oscillating in a very dark place. Steinbolt and District Line 11 are plagues of noise, and An Arched Pathway is the soundtrack of a violent disturbance in a scrap yard. C-Town Smash is just horrible.
    And there are surprises aplenty. Menelec starts off like Autechre's very gentle and hypnotic Overand (from Tri Repetae), but this is very much the calm before the storm. This velvety summons of the listener to the realms of quiet relaxation before assaulting them good and hard is a nice trick or an irritation, depending on your mood. It happens quite a bit too, to the point where Jenkinson has created a sort of Pavlov's Dog effect. You begin to expect a sudden aural kicking so you brace yourself for it. When it doesn't come, as in the moments of tenderness that are Tommib Help Buss, and Everyday I Love, you don't know whether to feel let down or relieved.

Strangely, some of the album sounds like a live recording. There are cheers and applause throughout the CD. But not all is as it seems, as the press release says. It never really interferes, although on C-Town Smash they are frankly suspicious. This is the sound of man showing off with bass guitar and effects processor in attendance. The cheers may be for the indulgent skill of the musician. Rather more likely though they are the wishful thoughts of Jenkinson, keen to acknowledge his own musical skill through a dubbed audience, even though on this one he has clearly over-reached himself.

It is difficult to decide where this album comes from. Overt John McLaughlin-style fusion references sit side-by-side with rapid-fire breakbeats, gorgeous synth textures and lunatic arrangements for off-key frequencies. Is it post acid-house experimental listening music, breakbeat techno, post-bop avant garde, or progressive jazz? At times it is difficult to decide if this album is even listenable. Some of it is arch-crap that will test your patience, while some of it will have you enthralled to the last note.
    Ultimately anything that confuses the listener to such an extent must be good - you just have to keep going back to it to see if it really happened, and even then you'll discover bits you never knew existed.

:: Tom Alford

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