There are pairs of artists who, for certain stretches of their careers, have been difficult to fully separate: Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Bowie and Iggy, Duran Duran and Talk Talk, Aerosmith and Kiss. Whether deliberate or circumstantial, throughout most of the ’90s, Aphex Twin (literally) had one in Squarepusher.
After a few EP’s on the tiny jungle label Spymania and a single on the even smaller Worm Interface, Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) of Essex, England, found his way to Richard D. James, the Aphex Twin himself. James’ Rephlex label released the first Squarepusher album, Feed Me Weird Things, before sending Jenkinson on to Warp, the home (for the most part) of, yes, Aphex Twin. Along with labelmate Autechre, James and Jenkinson inspired every musician working in the experimental drill ‘n’ bass sounds of electronica throughout the decade.
Both musicians had a heavy hand in liberating electronic music from its dance prison. Such contemporaries as Orbital, Moby and 808 State struggled hard and fast to escape four-on-the-floor rhythms, extending the beats per minute deep into triple digits. (That yielded the equal and opposite reaction of ambient techno, led by The Orb, which slowed things to gently lapping waves of post-party comedown music.)
Aphex Twin, under several aliases, followed this trend, beginning as another rave assassin and settling comfortably into ambience. The single “Ventolin,” included on the watershed I Care Because You Do, is the line in the sand marking a new land for electronic music. Within a year, Sqaurepusher had signed the Rephlex manifesto, and electronica was born. Relying on a symphonic structure, coupling elegant melodies by counterpoint and harmony, and keeping the furious, hardcore pace of the ravers, electronica is Philip Glass on crack, a Bach fugue played on a 303 drum machine with competing time signatures that vanish into the whole. James and Jenkinson made music to inspire awed contemplation over rump-shaking or tripping out.
Nonetheless, Squarepusher remained in the Aphex shadow, a Chelmsford guest at James’ Cornwall party. Jenkinson made little effort to distance himself from his mentor: they shared influences (Bach), video directors (Chris Cunningham), even phrases: Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” finds its response in Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector,” in which Jenkinson screeches back, “Come to fuckin’ daddy.” You can hear Jenkinson tugging on the umbilical cord until, finally, it snapped.
Squarepusher, it turned out, packed a secret weapon. Born the son of a jazz drummer and a jazz bassist by training, Jenkinson brought a jazz sensibility, if only by implication, to his pre-Rephlex recordings, particularly on the “Bubble and Squeak” single. Jazz pokes its head in the door on Hard Normal Daddy, which incorporates a live bass, but it feels shallow, an obvious attempt to create a distinguishing ingredient. The bass became a part of the live Squarepusher experience, improvisation riding over the hard stuff on disc.
Squarepusher then changed gears so dramatically as to abandon not just the clichés of the genre, but the genre itself with the jazz masterpiece Music Is Rotted One Note. Here, Jenkinson demonstrates that his ability to stretch the limits of a computer and drum machine is rivaled only by his instrumental skills. Exchanging the cerebral for the intimate, he pares down the production to its essentials — and the sound is revelatory. In spirit, the album has similar elements to those found in Miles Davis’ later fusion music; both walk that fine line of cool jazz between clean and clinical. In technique, Music Is Rotted One Note is closer to Jaco Pastorius’ progressive jazz, particularly on the more soothing tracks, like “My Sound.” Most of the album, however, finds a unique tone best exemplified by “Don’t Go Plastic,” a Buddy Rich song gone frenetic and menacing, suggesting that what’s under those polyrhythms is upset with whoever’s listening. It’s difficult to accept that this album was recorded by one multi-tracked man playing every instrument (upright bass, drums, African percussion, keyboards, and guitar) live, all with a mastery equal to legends. It’s Rich, Pastorius and Davis rolled into a one- man Weather Report — a dark and brooding ride that exposes the link between electronica and jazz composition and is a solid argument against detractors who call electronic music soulless.
What remained for Jenkinson then? In the same creeping way that jazz came to dominate, then consume, Squarepusher, drill ‘n’ bass worked its way back into the mix. This was a less successful process, turning Squarepusher into a mediocre electro-funk outfit (Go Plastic), rehashing ground Jenkinson had already traveled (Do You Know Squarepusher?). But from such redundant tedium, Squarepusher returned with a masterpiece.
Once, at a reading, Raymond Carver stopped, picked up a pencil and began making corrections and edits to a published work. Ultravisitor, an electronica masterpiece that feels like a culmination, is Jenkinson’s necessary correction. “Iambic 9 Poetry” picks up right where Budakhan Mindphone‘s “Iambic 5 Poetry” left off, taking the calming, prog rock keyboard tones and gathering percussion to subtle, soothing triumph. Even the dismal funk and hip-hop experiments find their glory in the oceanic depths of “50 Cycles.” Bach goes death metal in “Steinbolt.” The live bass is on hand throughout, and the closer, “Everyday I Love,” adds Spanish guitar. Rather than go through yet another reinvention of a nearly exhausted genre or abandon it once more, Jenkinson has moved on to perfecting it.