The original intention of this column was to listen to all the records in my collection in alphabetical order by album title. I’ve abandoned that for the most part. But I’ll come back to it periodically.
I think if you’re going to cobble together a short list of the most influential experimental electronic artists of the 1990s, Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, would be right there at the top alongside Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) and Autechre. These artists were able to remain rooted in pushing artistic boundaries within their genre while the nascent popluar electronic scene flourished briefly during the decade, glorifying the more mass-consumption-ready acts like Fatboy Slim, The Crystal Method, and The Chemical Brothers. But it was the (relative) fringe acts that made the whole thing interesting, legitimizing the genre, as if it really needed it, and countering the big-beat DJ set with a brand of music broadly categorized as IDM (or, for the uninitiated, “intelligent dance music,” a love-it-or-hate-it catch-all bin).
As Squarepusher, Jenkinson deftly weaves jazz textures as well as delectable melodies into his schizophrenic rhythmic workouts, fashioning energetic and sophisticated material that invites complete immersion – you miss too much on a first pass. And Big Loada isn’t even a proper sequential Squrepusher release, as it was initially released in the UK as a 7-song EP on Warp Records, then rearranged and recompiled to include the full Port Rhombus EP (as well as other items) for a US release on Nothing. Fortunately, with the wider reach of the format, we get to see a few different sides of Jenkinson that perhaps a singular, focused album would neglect. This is an opportunity to glimpse him having a bit of fun.
According to the release notes on Wikipedia, the original reason to rearrange/re-release for a US audience was to highlight director Chris Cunningham’s work on the visual component to “Come On My Selector,” appended as multimedia to the CD. (Cunningham did Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” videos – yeah, that guy – you know you’re in for a weird treat.) As such, that track is pushed to pole position, and it’s a pretty good way to start, as it highlights the drill-n-bass aspects of Squarepusher’s oeuvre, synth squirts and rushed samples fighting insane rhythms. It makes me want to run really, really fast. All the time. Like I’m mainlining sugar or something. Or coke. Go go go, right? But the beats are so tricky and the pacing is so manic that it takes multiple listens to let it sink in. That’s a good thing in my opinion.
Let’s not forget that Jenkinson is a master at combining beats and melody into full compositions, orchestral almost in their depth and virtuosity, and certainly with enough twists, turns, and intricacies to appeal to the jazz and pop crowds. “A Journey to Reedham (7AM Mix)” follows “Selector” directly, and the sweet synth lines evoke the passage of city, then countryside, in the early morning hours, in fast forward. (The journey lasts 3 hours and 13 minutes from Liverpool Street Station in London. If you need to get there tomorrow – well, September 9th – the 7:00 am train leaves from Platform 10. Don’t forget your headphones, and this song on repeat.) The drum programming gradually realizes its place alongside the synthesizer, and the two perfectly compliment each other as caffeine begins to kick in to start the day. “Massif (Stay Strong)” Pulls back a bit on the wild energy, and the drums stay in the treble range for the most part while the underlying tone languishes in a more subdued state, and even though the BPM is high, it’s actually quite relaxing.
But it’s the Port Rhombus EP portion of Big Loada that I connect to most, in part because it deviates a bit from the hardline directness or easily graspable melodiousness of previous offerings here. “Port Rhombus” itself is a rainstorm, a dark, brooding dockside watering hole in which to weather the downpour. Smoky and stagnant, the room fills with drums and electric piano, the former still maintaining their wildness as more cymbal hits are introduced within a broad swath of jazz virtuosity. Otherwise, the music is melancholy, mirroring the only possible weather streaming down outside. It is a tune worth hunkering down with. “Problem Child” – sheesh, what do you say about maddening jungle for almost 6 minutes? If I had a kid that acted like this song does, I’d go crazy. Jazz electric piano makes an entrance in the midst of it, thank you, yes please more, but it’s the rhythm that stars here. “Significant Others” slowly drips and skitters before, of course, plowing into a patterns upon patterns of glorious rhythm.
I also want to note “The Barn (303 Kebab Mix),” which ends the album, as it opens with several seconds of amp feedback, before squirting into some sort of mutant Chemical Brothers territory. At 2:11, it’s easily digestible, and one of the most fun offerings here, even though it’s buried at the end. And the noise ratio is nice for such a small sample.
This is not club garbage – this is thinking feller’s electronic music, truly IDM if the artists who embody the aesthetic don’t will it from existence. Whether you’re an insatiable electro hound or a fed-up jazz head, there’s a lot to like here. Enjoy it.
RIYL: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Mouse on Mars, Photophob