Just Another IDM LP? Squarepusher’s Dostrotime, Continuity & Modernism

Squarepusher's new album is a palate-cleansing summary of work to date displaying an admirable breadth of technique with some amazing peaks, says John Doran, but as a continuity LP it points more clearly to a crisis in criticism rather than IDM

The blazing lights of 90s British IDM – braindance, neurostep, sofa acid, pass-me-the-Rizla-core, call it what you will – were, to a certain extent, in critical terms at least, hoist by their own modernist petard about 12 years ago when all of the chatter about retromania was building to a peak. A binary, linear and, ironically, not particularly smart critique was applied slapdash to all comers after an initially persuasive philosophical shift noted by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. The knuckle-dragging comic subplot rejoinder to new music made in these slipstream zones often ended up going something like: “Oh, you haven’t created a new groundbreaking era-defining genre of music recently so you’re done.” Ignoring the turn of the colossal gyres – culture, politics and technology themselves in profound irreversible rotation – it also ignored the thermodynamics of creative transference.

Mike Paradinas’ recent 1977 album may well be suffused in warm nostalgia for his youth and young manhood, but his sharp modernist impulses are still very much in evidence as a label boss promoting footwork and other avant garde forms of electronic music via his label Planet Mu. Aphex Twin has claimed in several interviews that he is no longer concerned with the concept of pushing music forwards and his post Analord output mainly supports this, however anyone who has seen him DJ will attest that he continues to create a singularly sense-disrupting live experience which is the closest analogue to making contact with an alien lifeform that most of us will go through in a field without the aid of DMT. (Autechre pre-cognitively side-stepped this whole affair with the release of Confield in 2001, by retreating so far from, or advancing so far past, genre conventions that their deep influences and source material can now only be glimpsed as if from the inside of a multi-faceted gem, riven with fractures – all temporal, spatial information prismatically disrupted way past the threshold of rational categorisation.)

Squarepusher, as – and I hope you can see the quotation marks I’m deploying very clearly here – the “real musician” of the bunch, was always going to be a slightly different kettle of fish, as his virtuoso craft, whether playing electric bass or guitar or drums or keys, meant he had to try twice as hard to stake his claim to modernism as there would nearly always be some kind of quotation to musical history in everything he released, whether to jazz, fusion, heavy metal or whatever. But this made his climb all the more thrilling to observe. From the naive cool buzz of Feed Me Weird Things to the jaw-dropping technique of Music Is Rotted One Note via the warped sci-fi jungle of Hard Normal Daddy, eventually up to the digital wipe-out of Go Plastic and summiting with the monstrous future jazz peak of Ultravisitor, it was like watching a skilled winter Alpinist working without ropes, fast, dangerous, agile.

Since then progress has come in the form of the exploration of a horizontal plane: solo bass guitar records designed to foreground advanced technique, live band albums, music made with self-created technology, collaboration with robots… it was only really with Be Up A Hello in 2020, that the weight of the past became something that Tom Jenkinson found himself shouldering squarely. The album was partially recorded as a tribute to a fallen friend, a pal he’d first connected to rave with, and was, in loose terms harking back to halcyon days of breaks and acid recorded on vintage analogue equipment and old computers from BITD. Did it sound old? Honestly, yes and no. Initially yes because of clear sonic signifiers, rhythms and signature sounds, but then less so on repeated replays, especially if one stopped to consider whether this was pure battle recreationism or a thilling reboot of old ideas.

Dostrotime may initially feel similar even though mainly different on a granular level. The album is a pleasingly symmetrical trip through What Squarepusher Solo Can Do In 2024, and, to me at least, it feels like a palate-cleanser, although, perhaps that’s just my optimism showing and we’ll need to wait and see on that score. The album is bookended and bifurcated by solo-guitar tracks – naked bar a fig leaf wisp of reverb – called ‘Arkteon’, with the first having some of the unabashed emotional heft of an Angelo Badalamenti or Johnny Mandel composition, and the final, utilising an unusual tuning, ending on a much less emotionally certain note. The second ‘type’ of track here – and my least favourite if I’m being truthful – is a Squarepusherian brand of maximal hyperprog (though not indebted to the metallic hyperpop work of Fire-Toolz or Thot Crimes) as can be heard on ‘Enbounce’, a sweetly tuneful (optimistic?) number reworked from Jenkinson’s BBC Daydreams soundtrack and while it utilises a number of Roland machines, most notably a TB-303 with cut off resonance squelching away merrily, it’s not acid, and despite galloping pace it’s not hardcore either, being as giddy as a kipper; a sugar rush-induced panic attack in a planetarium. The track finds its mirror image in the thoroughly jaunty – and also bordering on aggravating – sci-fi prog take on early music, ‘Holorform’, the weird effect of being both ‘classic’ feeling while simultaneously disorientating, created by a (relatively straight-laced) guitar solo having multi-stepped processing applied to it in real time. (If we’re comparing like with like however, this gear would still evaporate a band like Muse.)

We’re onto more pleasantly and familiarly unfamiliar ground with ‘Wendorlan’s fractally deep digital acid breaks and high-viscosity rave hoover breakdown; and likewise with ‘Stromcor’ which is bolstered by some bloody-fingered bass shredding, which occasionally threatens to spiral off into some Mahavishnu showmanship. ‘Duneray’ is the clearest link to Be Up A Hello’s hardware d&b breaks, complex reverb and darkside acid with oscillators screaming through multi-tap delays and is my happy place on Dostrotime. It has its mirror image in the stupendous ‘Domelash’ which has pointillistic FX continually detaching itself from/reattaching itself to the pulverising and fearsomely clocked percussive breaks and also on the insolent halftime rave-stab reverb fest of ‘Akkranen’. I don’t take mushrooms any more but if I did, I’d take them to this. ‘Kronmec’ is a suitably chilly, churchical, progressing in microtonal increments, slab of Blade Runner and Clockwork Orange-OST indebted cold wave techno; and the churchical becomes cathedral-like (cathedrical?) on the roomy and beat sparse ‘Heliobat’.

But all of this will be treated as water being tread in some quarters by people who might as well have concrete in their ear canals. The big picture here is admittedly one of continuity music, but the hard graft, production innovation and sonic insight are easy to detect in the granular details. It’s certainly not ‘just’ another example of something being knocked out that’s been heard a million times before. The idea that the second IDM stops being formally groundbreaking and era-defining it loses its worth – no matter how enjoyable or exciting it is – is itself a philosophical idea that should be interrogated. Like, using one’s intellectual heft to help formalise the end of one stage in a cultural model but not to bother worrying about what comes next is, at best a job half done, and at worst a self-aggrandising act of vandalism, ceding too much space to the most conservative voices at work today generally (and allowing too much space for people who have strong opinions on trance remixes of Burial to take centre stage). It was the thrill of jouissance that first attracted me to this kind of music some three decades or so ago but that was simply the successful beach head of an overwhelming invasion. To suggest it was solely the newness in itself that gave this music worth is, to be frank, disappointing and narrow-shouldered. To demand a big picture revolution with each successive new album one hears suggests a desire for nothing more profound than irritating novelty music, but in reality this is just so much obnoxious loud-mouthed, napkin-waving bluster engineered to cover a lack of appetite and skill for the actual job in hand: describing the worth of music in a truly post-revolutionary age.

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