An Essential Guide to Squarepusher
Published May 13, 2015Do You Know Squarepusher isn't just the title of his 2002 album; it's a perfectly valid question to ask both the most avid Squarepusher fans and possibly even the man himself, Tom Jenkinson. His back catalogue is a musical minefield of sea changes, genre obliterations, and the occasional shoving of a bass guitar-worn finger in the face of expectation. At heart he's a jazz musician, but his mind wanders deep into electronic experimentation, while his gut rumbles like a drum & bass behemoth. You almost feel sorry for Warp Records, who've handled nearly all his releases since 1997, with no real inkling of what's around the corner.
The very nature of Squarepusher is somewhat alienating; follow his jazz-oriented pathways and you'll inevitably hit a wall of jungle tracks; revel in his acid-breakcore glory and you may get stuck in a haze of ambience a few moments later. For many, this is the pitfall of Squarepusher fandom, but it's also what makes him so unique, so intriguing. Perhaps there aren't many of his albums that cater to one mood from start to finish, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an artist who can explore so many styles and still sound immediately identifiable.
For anyone proceeding down the rabbit hole that is Squarepusher's discography for the first time, or for those who've long been lost in its maddening terrain, here are a few choice landmarks to help you reach the other side. Here's Exclaim!'s Essential Guide to Squarepusher.
5. Selection Sixteen
Selection Sixteen is possibly the most underrated Squarepusher album — you can still snap up vinyl of this record for less than $14, a rare treat for Squarepusher releases of this calibre. Why it's never talked about is baffling to anyone who's given it some time. This is by far Jenkinson's most acid-y release, and he does it so well that it seems strange that he never really explored this facet much more in his later releases.
Both "Square Rave" and "Dedicated Loop" are perfect examples of how Squarepusher can tinker with some simple acid elements until they're unlike anything else out there. Then there's "Schizm Track #1" and the bonus "Schizm Track #2," the former of which is guttural hip-hop-esque strut, while the latter is an apocalyptic, albeit wobbly, storming of the gates. Couple this with relentless acid techno track "Snake Pass" and the brutal punishing that is "Mind Rubbers," and you've got yourself an unseen pearl.
4. Hello Everything
Despite being released near the middle of Jenkinson's 20-year career, Hello Everything is probably the best jumping off point for newbies. Here you'll find a smorgasbord of the styles that are explored more deeply in his other releases. It offers tuneful jazz without being overbearing, and serene ambience that's carefully bookended with slick drum patterns so as not to let you drift off entirely.
It's also the only time that Jenkinson nails the sci-fi aesthetic that has tarnished his more recent releases. "Planetarium," "Rotate Electrolyte" and "Welcome to Europe" all have a kind of intergalactic sheen to them, but this rope is only gently tugged at, making them quirky, as opposed to savagely yanking it into the realm of cheesiness, as he does on 2012's Ufabulum and his latest, Damogen Furies. In many ways, Hello Everything is the last great Squarepusher record, a beautiful hoorah before things started going a bit south.
3. Hard Normal Daddy
One of Squarepusher's first and one of his most consistent releases, Hard Normal Daddy is a bona fide classic. It never gets quite as turbulent as the others on this list, or as most of Squarepusher's discography, but for start to finish enjoyability, this one's hard to beat. Released at a time when drum & bass was beginning to wane in popularity (before rearing its head again in the mid-2000s), Hard Normal Daddy was an interesting take on a genre that was running out of ideas.
From the splendid offset of "Coopers World," it's clear that the overall tone for this album is a playful one, a fact that's immediately backed up by the innocuousness of "Beep Street." Of course, the album isn't without its dark corners — this is Squarepusher, after all. "Rustic Raver" is all evil synths and jungle breaks, while "Chin Hippy" is an intensely hectic drum-fest, but these are black sheep on an album that's teeming with colour.
The funky breakdown on "Fat Controller" alone is enough to make you think that maybe Jenkinson is human after all, and not a rogue A.I. bass guitar that's gotten a taste for jungle blood.
2. Go Plastic
Unlike Hello Everything, this album is by no means for virgin Squarepusher listeners. Massively experimental and occasionally exasperating, Go Plastic isn't for the faint of heart. An easy listen it isn't, but within the peaks and valleys of this record are some of Squarepusher's most glorious moments. "The Exploding Psychology" is a true testament to musical ability and sheer creativity. Follow its bubbling electronics to the end and you'll have passed a bunch of styles that should have no place teaming up together, but nevertheless make for an unbelievable combo.
It's funky, abrasive, and poignant all at the same time — kind of an archetype for Squarepusher's sound as a whole. The album's also home to the semi-radio-friendly "My Red Hot Car" and the lesser-known, but far superior "I Wish You Could Talk," one of Jenkinson's more straightforward drum & bass tracks, one that strikes a perfect chord between lively and lonely. If Hard Normal Daddy is a hillside stroll, then Go Plastic is K2: harder to traverse but much more rewarding once you've conquered it.
1. Big Loada
It may seem sacrilegious to place a mere EP at the top of this list with such a wealth of albums to choose from, but this one's just too impressive to go anywhere else. Purists may evangelize the original release on Warp, but it's the extended issue on American label, Nothing Records, that takes the podium. Only on this release do you get the infectious bass lines of "Problem Child," the acid swagger of "The Barn (303 Kebab Mix)" and the downright beautiful "Port Rhombus."
Big Loada is Squarepusher's finest hour. It's a wormhole view into the experimental potential of drum & bass that was — and still is, really — unlike anything around. Here, Jenkinson seems to be enjoying himself more than on any other record. Big Loada is intelligent, innovative and abstract, but it's mostly just huge amounts of fun. Whether you want to get beastly with insane ragga jungle via "Full Rinse," challenge your brain and neck muscles with "The Body Builder" or aimlessly stare out the window for "Journey To Reedham (7am Mix)," this release has you covered.
It's also got "Come On My Selector," a true oddball masterpiece, the unbelievable video for which marks another Briton's finest hour, a director by the name of Chris Cunningham. Big Loada is nothing short of brilliant, a glorious node in a long, sometimes uneven career.
What to Avoid:
There are no doubt some out there who favour Squarepusher's more jazz-heavy work to the electronic explorations mentioned above. Anyone who falls into this category may want to switch these two sections to their liking. For most people, however, it's worth noting that there are a number of Squarepusher albums that won't sit right.
Budakhan Mindphone, for one, is a trainwreck of avant-garde weirdness and jazz fusion. It's not necessarily way out there, but it's so niche and isolated that it's hard to imagine many rifling through their Squarepusher collection and landing on it. Preceding it by a year is its slightly more accessible cousin, Music Is One Rotted Note. Though decidedly more funky than Mindphone, this release is still alienating to most; it's unequivocally a jazz record, but it's Squarepusher's take on the genre, which means it's ignored by true jazz fans and in turn most Squarepusher fans alike, leaving it floating in no man's land.
Then there's Jenkinson's most frustrating letdown, Do You Know Squarepusher. Part of why it's so disappointing is because the title track is Squarepusher's best song to date, possibly even one of the best electronic tracks ever produced. But a lot of ungraspable noodlings — including a dizzying swirl of nonsense, with Jenkinson reciting what sounds like an Introduction to Physics textbook, and a thoroughly unimpressive remake of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" — make this release a washout.
It's also hard not to mention Just a Souvenir, Squarepusher's most abrupt gear change. Based on a vivid daydream, the album finds Jenkinson taking on the guise of a futuristic rock band who perform underneath a giant glowing coat hanger. If you think it sounds strange in theory, it's nothing compared to the end result. Despite being thoroughly enjoyable when performed live — mostly due to the addition of a live drummer — the recording itself is an all-too-heady mix of jazz, prog rock, funk, metal and some unseemly use of a vocoder.
Jenkinson's Squarepusher moniker is such a prolific one that he never really felt the need to make alternatives, with the exception of Chaos A.D. He only made one recording under the pseudonym, Buzz Caner, released on Rephlex in 1998, but it's a peach. Broken beat, acid and IDM rule here, with no jazz influences whatsoever, just purely electronic onslaughts.
Which is not to say that his jazz leanings are a bad thing. Squarepusher's first full-length, Feed Me Weird Things, is massively jazzy, but it's done right, by which we mean spliced perfectly with breakneck drums and the occasional cartoonish parade, such as the delightful "Smedley's Melody."