Ever got an album by one of your favorite artists, popped it in, expected more of the same and been met with a “what the hell?” moment as the music blasts out of your speakers defeats all your expectations. Sometimes bands make a career out of abrupt left field changes in approach. Others come out of nowhere and confuse and befuddle fans.
Or at least they SEEMINGLY come out of nowhere. Sometimes these changes were there all along. This is where this new series of articles comes into play: here, I will analyze where these “what the hell?” albums came from and what, if anything they have to offer to an artist’s legacy.
The first entry in this new series (don’t worry ABBA fans, the next review is coming soon) is 2009’s “Solo Electric Bass 1” from drum and bass pioneer “Squarepusher.” “Squarepusher” is best known for fast paced, complex drum patterns, hard hitting bass lines and wild synthesizer lines that broke new ground in electronic music and helped influenced fellow IDM artist Aphex Twin to explore similar routes.
THIS album is a live recording of unaccompanied electric bass solos. Not electric bass SYNTHESIZER solos: but actual played bass guitar solos. Everything sounds highly improvised (and likely was) and is simultaneously intimate, warm, complex and low key. It didn’t get very good reviews.
So, where did such an album come from in the “Squarepusher” discography? Well, casual fans may not have been aware of it but “Squarepusher” aka Tom Jenkinson is actually an incredibly accomplished jazz player. In fact, the “bass” in the “drum and bass” is almost always Jenkinson’s non-sampled playing. Considering the complexity of the bass parts on his albums, this is quite a feat.
In fact, jazz makes up a huge part of “Squarepusher’s” sound. Did you listen to that sample clip from above? If you did, you may have noticed the slight jaziness of the keyboard parts. This wasn’t an accident: Jenkinson often veers between hardcore electronic textures and more jazz influenced sounds.
1998’s “Music is Rotted One Note” is actually a tour-de-force of jazz fusion in which Jenkinson plays all the instruments himself. He often combines these jazz fusion tendencies with hard programmed electronic instrumentation, creating a sound that is uniquely his and is hard to replicate. Trust me, I’ve tried.
That actually makes “Solo Electric Bass 1” (remember, that album I’m supposed to be talking about?) make a bit more sense in context. Perhaps Jenkinson was tired of not getting enough recognition for his bass playing skills. Perhaps he wanted to attract attention to his solo bass tours. Maybe he was once again simply changing directions as he did with his next album, a near pop album.
When all is said and done, is the album good? Not really: it’s just a guy playing a bass for 40 minutes. No matter how good you are on the instrument, it’s really hard to make it sound awesome for an entire album. In fact, although I do admire the bravery of standing on stage and improvising a whole set on a bass guitar, it sounds and feels more self indulgent and egotistical than brave. Sorry Tom!