We should know by now of Tom Jenkinson’s ability to flout convention, but his latest outing still comes as something of a shock. Shobaleader One is the realisation of a fantasy dreamt up in his 2006 album Just A Souvenir. In it he wrote about an imaginary band, where “one of the musicians appeared to be using a device attached to the body of his classical guitar that allowed him to accelerate or decelerate time in his immediate vicinity”. The drummer, meanwhile, was an Eskimo.
The identities of these musicians, with Squarepusher keeping them close to his chest, is not clear. But what he does let slip is that the keyboardist is Strobe Nazard, the drummer Company Laser (from Greenland, perhaps?) and that there are two guitarists. All that is clear is that they got in touch with him as one, persuading him of their calling to record with him until he couldn’t resist the temptation to form Shobaleader One.
To add to the air of mystery, all the vocals are delivered through a vocoder, giving a strangely robotic quality, while titles such as Laser Rock, Frisco Wave and Cryptic Motion hint at music married to the cosmic through a series of intricate equations.
But let’s be clear – this is not music to have on in the background. While nowhere near as hard hitting as Squarepusher’s own early stuff, with many of the sharp edges blunted, it flits around like a restless bird at times, moving through an often bewildering array of harmonies and melodies in a method that can only be described as a marriage of jazz and futuristic space rock. It’s as if Sun Ra and Todd Rundgren have sat down to record together.
It is, however, highly expressive. Frisco Wave has a beatific, carefree air about it, but stays the right side of easy listening by throwing in some complex guitar work. Megazine flits between cheese-laced ’80s funk and virtuosic synth pop, before putting the two together, supported by one of Jenkinson’s athletic bass lines. To sign off, Maximum Planck brings pile driving drums to the mix, clearly with an axe or two to grind – bringing some of the metallic roots of the project to the fore.
All this adds up to a qualified success, but it will certainly split opinion among his fans. To say that Squarepusher has become easier to listen to of late does him a disservice, as while there are consonant harmonies here, there is am awful lot to take in. It is potentially the nearest to easy listening he will ever sail, but repeated hearings bring forward just how unusual this music is. And that, surely, is a good thing.