It’s been an exciting few years for Squarepusher. After spending roughly a decade following the release of his seminal nu-jazz/fusion/IDM masterpiece record Music Is Rotted One Note following the trail of hybridized fusion/electronica, Tom Jenkinson—the man behind the mask—decided to slow things down. He produced his return to strict electronica, 2012’s Ufabulum, featuring a more purified strain of dancefloor electronica than he’d produced since the earliest few releases. This seemed to start a trend for the artist, wherein periods of experimentation would be punctuated by relatively more straightforward releases, and it was a good record but seems hardly mentioned these days. This is no fault to its compositions, which are catching and compelling, working well both in the late-night headphones-driven brain rewiring frenzies IDM is great for as well as high-energy dancefloor bangers of a particularly keen cerebral bent. The issue instead is more that we rarely go to Squarepusher for these kinds of bursts of electronic frenzy, associating the project more with a certain kind of demented electronic jazz.
The years that followed Ufabulum marked a new experimental phase, this time more wide-ranging than the previous jazz-focused one. Two years later, Music For Robots was released, an EP of compositions played by the Z-Robots trio of musical machines. Shortly after that came Damogen Furies, Squarepusher’s experiment in EDM. The next two records were as different from the previous as they were from each other, first debuting the Elektrac record which was a live jazz-fusion album produced again under the Shobaleader One moniker, and then All Night Chroma, an album of compositions for solo organ played by a classical organist. Each focused on a different aspect of Squarepusher’s innate interests that have been present from the beginning of his career, from inhumanism and machine-mindedness to electronic dance music to jazz to the compositional density and air of orchestral works. There is a pattern to follow, however; these experiments would inevitable collapse to another straightforward dance music/IDM release, this time Be Up A Hello.
This kind of grounding in the history of Squarepusher as a project aids in appreciating the effort. This is somewhat of a sad thing to say, admittedly; the pieces, while compelling, feel almost anachronistic in 2020, sounding like a solid but not great IDM record from the mid ’90s, almost like a lost Juno Reactor album. The opening four tracks of the album feel relatively of a piece, exploring different IDM textures, but unfortunately offer little to the advancement of the genre. Still, Squarepusher is not only a veteran of the scene but a well-studied composer, so this isn’t to say that if you are a bit less critical that they won’t get you to get up and dance. It’s more that after the past six years of exceptionally varied experimentation, it can be a bit disappointing to see a composer and player of the skill and mindfulness of Squarepusher play things so relatively safe.
Which makes the fifth track, “Detroit People Mover,” all the more satisfying. Out of the blue, after it seems that Squarepusher has released an alright but otherwise unexceptional record, this cold and beautiful wave of kosmische comes out of nowhere. Berlin school electronics are, surprisingly, one of the few areas Squarepusher has not explored too deeply, so burying a composition of the style in the middle of an otherwise genreform IDM album is an interesting choice. The chord progression is simple and the sonic choices of the song err on the melodic end of things, feeling not unlike if Pink Floyd were to take a stab at the style. It is a surprising shot of explicit emotionalism in the midst of an album that is otherwise fixated on similar emotional images of unaffected cold labyrinthine machinery we’ve seen from the genre for the past few decades.
However, a sidereal strength of the album arise in the fact that he’s making these kinds of cold, frenetic, disintegrating machine gestures now, in 2020, when a tech-enabled fascism feels paradoxically like it’s perpetually at our throats and a million miles away. Squarepusher has never made music about happiness, at least not really; even at his most danceable and ebullient, there was a lingering halo of darkness and drug-induced psychosis lingering around the corner. He manages to achieve that same sense of psychosis here to a much darker effect, feeling almost like a beckoning to apocalypticism rather a proper dance album, Squarepusher’s variation of the kind of noise-, industrial- and heavy metal-influenced dance music groups like HEALTH have been producing over the past decade. The elegiac withering sadness of the melodicism he achieves with old-school vintage analog synthesizers married against the harsh pummel of contemporary electronic accoutrements fits well here, underscoring a sense of despair, bitterness and frustration underpinning these pieces. It’s an emotional logic that only reveals itself after that watershed moment several tracks into the album, one which simultaneously retroactively validates the record while also underscoring the frustration that you have to get so far into the album before its intent feels tangible in any real emotional way.
Still, we so far have always been better for having more Squarepusher in our lives than we were with less, and Be Up A Hello is no different. The intent of these pieces on Squarepusher’s personal end may have been a reconnection to explicit electronic textures but on the end of a listener in the world of 2020, it’s hard not to tie it to the mounting sense of fascist apocalypticism lingering in the air. We are in an era of nihilism, one that feels a mirror to the darkness and grime of the ’50s, the ’70s, the ’90s, and in that space it’s hard to read a record of this kind of dissociative overstimulating near-industrial mechanical frenzy as anything but a mirror of implicit darkness. In that capacity, Be Up A Hello acquits itself of the shortcoming of not being the most impactful release of Squarepusher’s body of work. It is hard to imagine this album topping year-end lists or floating up near the top of its creator’s vast body of work, but I imagine it will enjoy a long life as an underappreciated record, one that belongs in that comfortable and satisfying second class of records that are competent examples of the genre they work within. Squarepusher seems to be incapable of producing a record that isn’t worth your time even if it’s only a cherished passing glance and Be Up A Hello is no exception.