Origin of the Screeches

New records by Squarepusher and Plaid suggest that evolution might be overrated

Sure, Charles Darwin may have been a genius, but I can't shake a sneaking suspicion that his evolutionary model was, well, not a good thing for Western civilization. Don't worry, I'm not about to get creationist-crazy on your ass. My gripe lies rather with the misinterpretation of Darwinian theory as a neo-industrial "survival of the fittest" theorem that suggests "advances" in technology are equivalent with progress.

So what does any of this have to do with music? No more than the theory of natural selection has to do with Planet of the Apes. All I know is that musical Darwinism suddenly sounds a lot less appealing in the new albums by English electronica artists Plaid and Squarepusher, the first of which will bring their musical survival of the fittest to First Avenue this Thursday. Both acts are crucial to the development of Intelligent Dance Music or IDM, a genre whose glitchy textures and hyper-edited rhythms seemed, in the early Nineties, to be a refreshing progression beyond the user-friendly new disco of Technotronic and Soul II Soul. But at the beginning of this new millennium, IDM has evolved into an über-complex sprawl, with each new release adding to an intricate game of technological one-upmanship. The trouble is, as I sit here ingesting the elaborate sequencing and computational craftsmanship of these two records with nary an emotional reaction, suddenly all this complexity, all this progress, doesn't seem like evolution at all. To be more blunt, IDM now feels about as relevant as a pair of MC Hammer pants.

Okay, perhaps I'm being harsh, even in relation to a genre so close to elitist as to define itself in terms of IQ points. And Ed Handley and Andy Turner, best known as Plaid (one of a plethora of pseudonyms), have been around long enough to at least be accorded the benefit of a close listen. Their new album Double Figure (Warp) is, according to Warp's tongue-in-cheek press release, "the final part of a reverse trilogy" and "deals with the duality of the ear," though such pseudo-intellectualism is best ignored in order to enjoy what is a masterfully crafted chunk of electronic pop. Whereas their previous albums ambled into harsh ambiance, Double Figure builds upon the rock-solid melodiousness of the album's opener "Eyen," an impossibly catchy nest of guitars tinted by Plaid's trademark woozy electronics. As with many other IDM acts such as Boards of Canada or Aphex Twin, Plaid's melodic sense settles into a bruised melancholy. (It must have something to do with the fact that they spent their formative years bathing in the cold glow of the computer.) From the electro-stomp of "Squance" to the gorgeous neo-classic-rock pomp of "Sincetta," Plaid is all sadness, all of the time, executed by attending to the sonic minutiae of digital signal processing with a precision that would make Eno envious.

Double Figure is a melodically intricate and technically impressive work. Why then does it leave me so cold? Blame it on aural saturation, if you like: There's only so much digital tomfoolery one can take before retreating back to acoustic guitars. Or blame it on the kind of musical onanism that crippled prog-rock, though that argument should perhaps be applied to more cerebral electronica. (Take a bow, Autechre.) It would be silly to criticize Plaid for being too good: Their studio prowess is always at the service of the song rather than self-involved Billy Corgan-esque extremes. But unfortunately, what Handley and Turner do, and do well, has slowly and quietly become, well, boring.

 

Perhaps Squarepusher, nom de disque of the perennially hyperactive Tom Jenkinson, is a better test case for the apparent irrelevance of IDM. Gaining renown for pairing impossibly complicated breakbeats with his own fusion-inspired bass playing--and becoming the avatar of a micro-genre named drill 'n' bass in the process--Jenkinson is the archetypal mean older brother who rejoices in other people's displeasure. His willfully uneasy listening has always been sublimated under a gleefully malicious public persona. (In his last U.S. tour, Jenkinson reportedly got off on exposing the audience to extended live feedback and screaming workouts.)

I have to confess that I've always had a strong distaste for the Squarepusher shtick. As is the case with most mean older brothers, the pseudo-tough façade is really nothing more than a mask of deep-seated insecurity. Jenkinson's particular hang-up: He likes "stupid" dance music, and he hates himself for it. Hence aural atrocities like "Come on My Selector" (from Big Loada), in which Jenkinson appropriates Jamaican dancehall and then sullies it with the stupid title--a childish perversion of the dancehall phrase "Come My Selector" that only highlights the musical debt Jenkinson owes to the genre.

Go Plastic (Warp), the newest Squarepusher offering, immediately makes a similar lowbrow joke with "My Red Hot Car." This opener is yet another Jenkinson parody, this time with U.K. garage serving as the intended target. The pisstake features a heavily vocodered Jenkinson crooning, "I'm going to fuck you with my red-hot cock" over a two-step beat that disintegrates into flurries of noise. I'm sure Jenkinson would call it subversion, but the song comes off like brainless machismo: a game of penis envy played out in public. Jenkinson might say the machismo is part of the parody, but that's beside the point: His aesthetic is resolutely male, his abrasive beats a triumph of power over subtlety.

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