When artists and producers began to draw on the sonic palette of video games sometime in the past decade, it largely felt like an exercise in nostalgia; a generation reared on Nintendo was rediscovering and repurposing the sounds that shaped their childhood imaginations via 8-bit remixes and ultra-niche genres like nerdcore and chiptune. But it’s worth thinking about what impact these blips, squarks, and crude digital renderings of strings and percussion have done to the overall pop-music landscape. Does it signal a move toward the more stripped down, back-to-basic elements of electronica, the way the acoustic guitar once did for rock? Is it a deliberate attempt to foreground the machinery of electronic music the way glitch music took particular pleasure in that machinery’s malfunction? These are the sort of questions that come to mind while listening to Ufabulum, the latest album by electronic stalwart Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher.
A notorious dabbler in genres, Jenkinson has always been one to dive into different musical worlds only to turn them inside out, as he did with “My Red Hot Car,” his schizophrenic take on 2-step garage, and Music Is Rotted One Note, his late-‘90s deconstruction of free jazz. On his latest, Jenkinson deploys an arsenal of gaming sounds, like the cheery 8-bit melody that anchors the standout “Unreal Square” and the whirring waveforms of “Dark Steering” that recall arcade racers like Pole Position. It wouldn’t be far off to hear “Red in Blue,” a beatless, synth-driven track built on a dark and twisting chord pattern, playing as the scrolling introductory sequence of some elfin quest. The effect of all these arcade textures is a combination of nostalgia and synesthesia, each song reeling its listeners into a familiar audio-visual world. Still, it leaves the album feeling a little emotionally shallow; how deep can you cut when you’re invoking a world of power-ups and high scores?
But Ufabulum isn’t only a nostalgic trip. At the very least, it marks a return to form for Jenkinson after 2009’s Solo Electric Bass 1, a stripped-down set that showed off his chops on the bass, and 2010’s Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator, his slow-moving, vocoder-heavy experiment with a full band. Ufabulum is a tighter and far more focused set, which brings back the breakneck BPMs and glitchy textures that characterized his earlier work. And it’s catchy, to boot. Between all the robotic squelches in “Stadium Ice” is a sugary slice of R&B, and midway through “4001,” a stripped-down drum-n’-bass groove builds into a series of full-throttle crescendos. This may not be the most challenging or experimental Squarepusher album, but it feels like a step forward for an IDM artist who’s been at it for nearly two decades.