ALBUM REVIEW: Squarepusher elevates his roots on ‘Be Up A Hello’

Squarepusher, Be Up A Hello

It’s a bit concerning that people still argue against electronic artists being “real musicians” considering the likes of DJ Shadow, Flying Lotus and of course Squarepusher. Tom Jenkinson’s 16 albums run the gamut of drum and bass music, intelligent dance music (IDM) and jazz fusion, but the latter influence really distinguishes him.

Be Up A Hello
Warp Records, Jan. 31

He made the jump into full-blown experimental jazz on 1998’s Music Is Rotted One Note. That album and 1997’s drill and bass tour de force Hard Normal Daddy threaten to eclipse his IDM albums. While Be Up A Hello is definitely a return to Squarepusher’s roots, it’s a solid example of Jenkinson approaching breakbeats as a songwriter.

Where 2015’s Damogen Furies fed Jenkinson’s brand of nu-jazz drum-and-bass through a filter of self-developed software, Be Up a Hello finds its footing on analog synthesizers. Opener “Oberlove” lays on the ‘90s IDM vibes heavy right off the bat. It’ll prove familiar to anyone who paid attention to underground electronica right before the turn of the millennia, but Squarepusher’s approach transcends danceable beats. He builds sweeping chord progressions over the top of a choppy rhythmic drive, contrasting a no-nonsense banger with stirring dynamics.

Associating electronic music with video games is a bit cliché, but the connection is really apparent on Be Up a Hello. I dare you to listen to the more stripped-down synth-pop leaning of “Hitsonu” without recalling the tutorial level of an early “Legend of Zelda” title. It’s even harder to not recall racing games like “F-Zero during unrelenting breakcore number “Nervelevers.” That particular cut features an energized beat switch, hypnotic dropping from frenic spread to wallopping half-time.

Deeper cuts like the shimmering, monolithic ambience of “Detroit People Mover” or the John-Carpenter-esque closer “80 Ondula” might trigger memories of un-skippable lore dumps during high fantasy quests. This overt connection is largely the result of the self-imposed limitations Jenkinson imposed on himself with his analog instruments. Still, it’s analog electronica done with taste, not as an excuse to rave or play video games (or both).

A lot of this might seem like rather accessible (and comparatively speaking, it is) tracks like “Speedcrank” and “Mekrev Bass” hold up the “intelligent” side of intelligent dance music. The former exhibits Jenkinson’s ability to extract a solid backbeat from what would otherwise be disjointed sound effects.

The analog recording process also necessitated more one-take sessions than usual, making the synchronicity that much more impressive. The latter, clocking in at seven minutes, protracts and cuts up the breakbeat formula to a point where it’s more like a beat-oriented sound collage. At times, the arpeggiated synths and rhythmic collages link up in a way more akin to midi-jazz than drum-and-bass music.

Things only get weirder on “Vortrack,” which draws connections to early Coil records with its industrial-tinged minimal wave. It’s here where Squarepusher’s knack for building alien soundscapes outshines his melodic intuition, spotlighting his most unorthodox tendencies. Passages like that make more straightforward tracks like “Terminal Slam” a welcome breath of fresh air. The sound palette is still unpredictable and chaotic, but it’s tightly woven into a propulsive rhythm structure.

Jenkinson’s ability to tactfully deal his musical hand prevents his choice of instrumentation from getting stale over the course of the album. The bizarro sci-fi synth runs of “Terminal Slam” are worlds different from the emotive leads of “Oberlove,” but they remain connected through their time-tested sound toolkit. It’s a testament to his enduring techno wizardry.

While it’s safe to say this is Squarepusher’s return to form, Jenkinson’s approach remains bulletproof—a bastion of genuine musicality in an oft-dismissed genre. If you’re new to this type of music, Be Up A Hello would be good to dip your toes into. If you’re a veteran, this album is an addictive summation of Squarepusher’s singular approach to drum-and-bass, IDM and straight-up weirdness.

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