Bleep! Doink! @#$%?!
Tom Jenkinson (a.k.a. Squarepusher) loves to toy with jungle's biggest weaknesses: a cocky confidence in its newness, and lust for perpetual innovation. With his uncanny knack for injecting manic pop thrills into comatose musique concrète concepts, Jenkinson continually invites all sorts of difficult--even bothersome--questions about genre and pop history. He positions himself as a perpetual outsider, going so far as to instruct interviewers that his music is not jungle but jazz.
Squarepusher's new LP, Music Is Rotted One Note (Warp/Nothing), sure does sound like jazz, namely the outlandish astrofunk of the Miles Davis who worked to make Ellington get down with Stockhausen and the compufunk of Herbie Hancock as heard on 1973's Sextant. As if disavowing his acclaimed early Squarepusher releases, Jenkinson avoids the sampler entirely, instead playing a standard drum kit, a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano, and a fretless bass.
Many a critic has hurled new names at the ecstatic, funky music made by Jenkinson and his comrades µ-Ziq, Aphex Twin, Plug, and Autechre--but none feels right. Terms like weirdstep, fungle, and drill 'n' bass do succeed in calling attention to the sound's euphoric-cum-sinister mood swings, but the only thing that really knits these loosely affiliated avant-gardists is their disregard for the dance floor.
To call Music Is Rotted "jazz" dismisses Jenkinson's most impressive achievement: renovating the jungle he loves by expanding its vocabulary of beats. Whether he's sampling (as on the essential 1997 LP, Hard Normal Daddy, or his blistering 1996 debut, Feed Me Weird Things) or playing the drums himself, Jenkinson's hyper-rhythms revise jungle history by re-examining its more exotic predecessors, evoking Brazilian and free-jazz rhythms with beautiful precision.
While scads of other junglists have drawn on '70s jazz fusion, their efforts usually translate into sexless smooth jazz, because the funk gets lost in the translation (a notable exception: 4Hero's Two Pages, which deploys lavish string arrangements inspired by Roy Ayers and the synth stabs that sound like the horn charts of the Art Ensemble of Chicago). Jenkinson's music is both reverential and ironic: He evokes funk as a joke, but pays homage to it as an easy, visceral source of cheeseball hooks. In fact, Jenkinson's melodies often sound dangerously close to Phish, especially his loopy, jittery basslines that giggle with vibrato and gurgle wah-wah.
Music Is Rotted seems painstakingly crafted to sound old, and not just because of its continual references to distant styles. It's an unapologetically lo-fi record: The production is sloppy. There is no warmth to the drums at all; they sound as if they were recorded in a dank, distant room. But Jenkinson restrains himself, resorting to simple, well-known studio tricks like playing his bass guitar backward to continually remind us that this electro-geek could still make music in a world without computers. On "Chunk-S," Jenkinson makes his Fender Rhodes sound like a squelching turntable, but the sexy squeaks serve only to divert attention from what's going on in the track's background, a swelling, gliding percussion mess that refuses to resolve into any tangible groove.
At times, especially on the post-rock-flavored "Virtual Hold," the lack of a beat feels galling. Jenkinson toys with the fact that way too many bebop drummers just coasted on the ride cymbal and let the horns take over. Yet he also plays his mellow bebop beat like he's milking a manic jungle breakbeat that's just itching to kick in--but never does. And then he brings the funk all over again, playing hide and seek with two basslines that desperately try to grab onto his unpredictable accents.
Jenkinson's Warp labelmates Autechre share Jenkinson's love for frenetic, up-tempo rhythms, but their sense of funk is even more extreme. They obsess over treble. Flip the "Mega Bass" switch on a Walkman while listening to Autechre: Nothing changes. But the Manchester duo's almost quixotic drive to make drum 'n' bass without the bass succeeds because they've learned from Krautrock and Detroit techno that cold synthesizer sounds don't have to sound numb and mechanical.
Autechre's main objective is to turn static and noise into invigorating, primal beats. Well aware that Steve Reich and ambient Brian Eno put beatfreaked soundboys to sleep, Autechre strive to make their subtle shifts in dynamics sound shocking, even menacing. The group's main men, Sean Booth and Rob Brown, use harsh EQing and reverb tricks to strip their samples of context: Everyday sounds feel foreign, and harsh mechanical pulses sound melodic. The result is dark, creepy music that dances on the line between inspiration and madness.
1995's Anvil Vapre EP shows the group at its most propulsive and accessible, trapping shattered diva vocals under crashing tides of beats, while 1995's Garbage EP follows a more ambient, even symphonic path (especially on the stunning "vltrmx21"). Booth and Brown's masterpiece to date, however, is Tri Repetae, which approaches the chirpy melodiousness of Aphex Twin and µ-Ziq, employing uncorrupted (for the most part) synth sounds and beatbox samples. It's industrial bubblegum.
Autechre's most recent LP, lp5 (Warp/Nothing) is their most serene, funky album yet, blurring the distinction between melody, rhythm, and noise. "777" sounds like Kraftwerk remixed by Skinny Puppy. "Melve" toys with nursery-rhyme melodies and cheap xylophonelike jingles. And "Rae" pits soothing synths against grand mal breakbeats.
Although their sounds couldn't be more disparate--at least by techno standards--Squarepusher and Autechre both wrestle with one of the primary obstacles experimental musicians have struggled to bring to the mainstream's attention for the past 30 years: the tyranny of "pretty" melodies and four-on-the-floor 4/4 beats.
Jenkinson proves that the furious technical skills of jazz drummers like Sunny Murray, Art Blakey, and Buddy Rich can be brought to bear on jungle. Autechre keep finding ways to integrate melody with noise, skirting the aesthetic dead end of ecstatic guitar chaos to present noise as the sound of technological malfunction--as if trying to score soundtracks to the Y2K meltdown.
The most common complaint about Autechre's tech-heavy sound is that it's cold and impersonal, although this dismisses or ignores the duo's snotty, technopunk attitude. (Their stunning Anti EP was a rabid protest against the U.K.'s draconian Criminal Justice Act, an anti-drug law that nearly squashed the London rave scene.) Playing with their identities, the duo continues to mock electronica's (im)personality crisis by recording occasionally as Gescom, then playing dumb--wondering in a Warp press release, "whether it's actually us on the record."
With the release of the next Gescom LP, Autechre take their absurdist streak to a hilarious extreme; the album will be released by Or records on MiniDisc only. Friends who have access to a MiniDisc player say it's some of the most challenging music Booth and Brown have yet recorded. But the stunt's tough to interpret: Are Booth and Brown making a heartfelt attempt to endorse a new, marginal technology? Is the LP just an absurd joke about the music industry and our dependence on machines? Or is Autechre obnoxiously flipping off their obsessive fans, making the audaciously egotistical assumption that their adherents love them enough to spend hundreds of dollars just to hear one LP?
Ultimately, what links Squarepusher and Autechre isn't their drive to jolt jungle out of its hipster rut. They're jungle's most compelling satirists, but they don't waste their virtuosity on anti-scene antics. What makes these groups matter is their shared talent for keeping us on our toes, forcing us to decide whether they're making fun of their peers, themselves, or the listener for trying to find the funk in their garbled, encrypted sounds.
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