Review: Squarepusher and Z-Machines, Music for Robots

Music for Robots is an experiment that rarely rises from the lab long enough to breathe the open air.

Squarepusher and Z-Machines, Music for RobotsOf all the glitchy, future-thinking mathnauts on the Warp roster, Tom Jenkinsion, a.k.a. Squarepusher, has always seemed the most coldly analytical of the bunch. While labelmates like Aphex Twin were busily building exhilaratingly terrifying soundscapes that sounded like bonesaws gone rogue and fax machines being tossed down metal stairs, Squarepusher was grounding his madness in music theory. At his apex, with 1997’s Music Is Rotted One Note, he managed to give his experiments a relatably human component: his palpable love of jazz music.

Music for Robots, a collaboration with Japanese “robot” band Z-Machines, represents another experiment, one that rarely rises from the lab long enough to breathe the open air. Jenkins functions as composer for this mecha-band and the results are surprisingly conventional. “Remote Amber” sounds like a drunken cat stumbling across an expensive Casio as if composing mood music for a Dario Argento movie—disorienting, but nothing we haven’t heard before. “Sad Robot Goes Funny” begins with mournful rumbling bass and martial drums, like a deep cut from Mogwai’s Come on Die Young, before revving into an impersonation of all the members of Yes solo-ing simultaneously. Like most of the EP, it’s prog-rock with anarchic window-dressing. “Dissolver” is a more melodic attempt at the same idea, a jazzy mashup of “My Favorite Things” and an Atari melding down; the track is arresting without ever allowing the listener to forget the algorythm at its core long enough to make an emotional impression.

“World Three” manages to half-solve the problem by tamping down the calculated chaos, spinning a web of spectral scales of staccato keys and wintry woodwinds. The only track that stimulates farther than the frontal lobe, however, is the last one, “You Endless,” a cracked lullaby that’s sorrowful without becoming maudlin. It’s the sole entry here that makes a convincing argument for Jenkinson’s stated goal (expressed in a recent CNN interview) of discovering the “twilight area between human and machine.” Perhaps this is better articulated visually with the whirring metal and flashing lasers of his robot collaborators in performance, but on record it mostly reads as another dry intellectual exercise by a man whose career has become cluttered with them.

Score: 
 Label: Warp  Release Date: April 8, 2014  Buy: Amazon

Blue Sullivan

Blue Sullivan has written about music for 25 years, including one of the very first American interviews with Guided by Voices's Robert Pollard and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. He's the author of Your Ex-Boyfriend Will Hate This.

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