A couple of weeks ago, while on one of my frequent pilgrimages to Austin, I heard Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the first time. Yes, even critics as (sarcasm alert!) renowned as yours truly possess major gaps in their knowledge of music history that haven’t been filled yet, and this was one of them. I put the record on with the intention of being background music for reading, and my initial reaction to it was that of confusion. Its collages of odd electric piano clusters, scratchy guitars, skittish drums, unwavering bass lines, and pained trumpet bleats struck me as disorganized and unwieldy. However, something told me to go back to Bitches Brew and give it another listen, this time with full concentration. I strapped on a pair of headphones and isolated myself in my friend’s bedroom. The second listen was a revelation. I heard the tape edits that stitched long blocks of playing together into a fairly cohesive “songs”. I heard aimless and atonal sections, in which the band sounded clearly lost, give way to discernible themes that could only have been achieved by synergy, only to fall black into the black holes that they came from. I heard the overdubs and production tricks that pushed Bitches Brew just a few steps further from the music’s improvisational origin. I felt the tug of war present in the music between chaos and order.
What does this have to do with IDM giant Tom Jenkinson and his latest album? Well, I have read many reviews that compare Ultravisitor to Bitches Brew, and assert that the former record will have the same effect on electronic music as the latter had on jazz. Although it is true that Bitches Brew paved the way for much of the next 30 years’ most forward-looking music (Tortoise certainly wouldn’t have existed without it), I doubt that Ultravisitor will have such an impact. If anything, the album is more of a summation of all of the ideas Jenkinson has explored on previous Squarepusher records, from spastic drill-and-bass to fusion jazz and all points in between. From the straightforward head shot that graces the cover to the bits of stage banter that pepper the transitions between tracks, Tom seems to be telling the listener, “This is who I am.” The songs on Ultravisitor that don’t most directly recall Jenkinson himself pay tribute to artists who have already stepped out from under his influence to become actual contemporaries. What I believe that Ultravisitor truly has in common with Bitches Brew is its tug of war between chaos and order.
Opening track “Ultravisitor” begins with crowd noises and a series of RoadRunner drum breaks run through an unceasing array of digital manipulations. A flatulent bass line pops in, and shortly thereafter an avalanche of bell-like synthesizers announces a theme with all of the melancholy and bombast of an orchestral fugue. When the drum programming drops out at the end of the song, someone just walking in the room might mistake what you’re listening to for New Age; it’s just that pretty! The very next track, “I Fulcrum,” is a live bass improvisation in which Jenkinson runs his instrument through various gadgets to sound like a bass, a guitar, and a Rhodes piano all at once. At one point, he veers off the deep end and contorts his bass to sound like a gamelan orchestra. These two songs serve as a fair estimate of the polar opposites that define Squarepusher’s music: the painstaking calculation that is required to produce such hyper-kinetic and ever changing programming, and the freewheeling abandon of instrumental improvisation.
The best songs on Ultravisitor hover somewhere between these opposites. “Iambic 9 Poetry” begins with a chiming bass riff that makes extensive use of harmonics, and turns into a funky slice of retro fusion jazz once Tom starts playing drums. Halfway through, the song goes into double-time and the live kit accurately imitates the speedy programming more common to songs like the title track. “Circlewave” begins with a drum solo, and the drums stay in that mode throughout the whole song, allowing the guitars and keyboards to do the time keeping instead. “Tetra-Sync” peaks with an excellent bass solo that is laid atop a circular, Tortoise-like chord progression. The cacophonous programming and sinister vocal cut-ups of “C-Town Smash” bring to mind an angrier Prefuse 73, and the ear-scorching metal guitars of “Steinbolt” sound like Venetian Snares remixing Metallica. None of the songs mentioned in this paragraph are models of concision, but they have just enough structure to keep from veering into the realm of musical masturbation.
I can’t say the same, though, for the middle third of the record. Whether Tom’s piling on layers and layers of intricate drum programming (“Menelec,” “District Line II”) or showing off his bass skills (“C-Town Smash,” “Telluric Piece”), this section of the record simply bombards the listener with noise and information without arranging it into anything that sticks. If it weren’t for the track indexing on the CD, you could just treat Ultravisitor’s middle third as one long song. The concept of a sound-clash between Jaco Pastorius and Merzbow is fun enough to imagine, but not necessarily to listen to. Last but not least, ending the record with two back-to-back classical guitar pieces that sound nothing like the rest of the record is, to put it lightly, a very puzzling move.
Despite all of this, I can’t bring myself to skip past any single track on Ultravisitor. I must listen to it in its 80-minute entirety and treat the bad ideas as if their inclusion was a necessity designed to show the listener the seams that hold the good ideas together. At its worst, Ultravisitor can still be admired solely for the technical skill required to pull the music off, much in the same manner that aspiring guitarists study people like Yngwie Malmsteen. At its best, though, the album can also be admired for Jenkinson’s ability to stitch his disparate ideas into an exhilarating whole. This is the exact same thing I would have written about Bitches Brew if my MOTHER hadn’t been in grade school when it came out.