Squarepusher - Damogen Furies

by Ethan Ranis Rating:6.5 Release Date:2015-04-20

Electronic music thrives on innovation. In a genre where creators are frequently accused of being talentless hacks, compositional tricks and new explorations of sound are valued partly because they prove the doubters wrong: let’s see a string orchestra or a four-piece rock band do this

None were more adept at shape-shifting than the mid-90s roster of Warp Records. Squarepusher, in turn, was one of the leaders of the movement, oscillating wildly between tripped-out 8-bit fantasias (Hard Normal Daddy) and free-jazz homages to Bitches Brew (Music is Rotted One Note). The only real consistency between most Squarepusher records was a love of dissonance and fast tempos, and a tendency toward theme-and-variation compositions.

So it’s a bit of a disappointment that Tom Jenkinson is essentially back with more of the same. His last album, Ufabulum, matched his frenetic drum n’ bass beats to Tiesto-style synth-leads. Damogen Furies employs the same style, with one eye toward the past and the other toward the festival lightshow. 

The only major change a new focus on density – everything here is punched toward maximum clutter and bass frequencies. As always, Jenkinson is a wizard behind the boards, but frequently the superabundance of contrapuntal lines proves grating. There’s no room to think, just a barrage of fussily trilling arpeggios and drum-patches sliced into drill-like bits. Even over a brief 45-minute runtime, it’s easy to reach a saturation point.

Some of these tracks are so goofily major-key that they could be considered self-parody (the 80s-cheese lead of opener ‘Stor Eiglass’ comes to mind) while others liberally borrow the circuit-bent bass madness of dubstep (or, if you want to be more generous, whippersnapper labelmate Rustie).  There’s a simultaneous laziness to the sounds (all of which Squarepusher has proven he can easily create in the past) and irritating attention-grabbing in how they’re mixed. Examples include the foregrounded cut 'n’ paste of the hammering synth-hits of lead single ‘Rayc Fire 2’, or the howling squeals of feedback that repeatedly show up in the album’s high frequencies like overused lens flares.

This isn’t to deny the pure adrenaline hit that some of these techniques can deliver when on peak form. When the tweaking pitch-bends and racing drums of ‘Baltang Ort’ finally align with a spacey wash of low-passed strings, the effect is a bit like riding a hovercraft at high speed through a futuristic metropolis. And the menacing growl of closer ‘D Frozent Aac’ spits out broken fragments of melodies that fly by at supersonic speeds; it’s like experiencing a blue screen of death from the computer’s perspective, though admittedly the effect is somewhat diminished by the cumulated overload of the rest of the album.

The problem here is twofold: on one level, Jenkinson is resting on his laurels, and another, he’s pandering. Neither look especially good on him. Given that the entirely-electronic Ufabulum was essentially a direct response to the scathing criticism directed at his live band experiment, Shobaleader One, it’s easy to see why he may be playing it safe. But Squarepusher as a project has always been best when it’s pioneering some unexpected synthesis. 

Hopefully, the next album finds Jenkinson with some renewed ambition and fresh ideas.

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