In the first quarter of 2013 alone London has already been treated to a spate of keenly anticipated audio-visual shows produced by some of the world’s leading electronic artists. First, German electro pioneers Kraftwerk presented The Catalogue at Tate Modern, a chronological retrospective that united eight of their best-known albums with 3D projection and renewed their reputation as the most influential techno group ever.
Then Brazilian DJ / sound designer Amon Tobin brought version 2.0 of his ISAM project to Hammersmith Apollo, unveiling a remarkably versatile light sculpture that wowed even those who had witnessed its first incarnation a year earlier.
Now comes Ufabulum from the UK’s own sonic manipulator Squarepusher, aka Tom Jenkinson. Taking its name from the album that announced Squarepusher’s return to form after several coolly received efforts, the show was described by promoters Soundcrash (who also brought us ISAM) as “an audiovisual assault featuring a synapse shorting LED display designed and programmed by [Squarepusher] himself”.
Tonight’s show support came in the form of Ninja Tune’s The Bug (aka Kevin Martin), self-proclaimed progenitor of “acid ragga”, who blasted out a heavy stream of caustic beats with contributions from guest MCs including Flowdan and Daddy Freddy.
It may be cynical to speculate that the recent proliferation of one-off multi-sensory performances has something to do with the record industry’s realisation that many artists’ revenue streams now rely more heavily on live appearances than on album sales. Squarepusher himself notes that “dance music artists in particular feel obliged to have a visual component to their live shows,” and concedes that “quite often, that combination feels like a distraction – like watching telly while you’re eating your dinner. If it doesn’t augment the music, what’s the point?”
Unfortunately Ufabulum doesn’t convincingly answer that question, especially when compared to the other two aforementioned AV spectacles, in each of which one sensed a more unified conception of light and sound. Here, the entirely abstract visuals – which consist largely of monochrome squares and strobing lines – threaten to overload the senses to the detriment of the music. This is particularly disappointing given that the album is perhaps Jenkinson’s best work for a while, featuring many of the hallmarks of his eclectic style – the frantically skittering basslines and warped jungle beats of 303 Scopum Hard; the euphoric synths of Stadium Ice; the womping bass that underpins a quaint recorder-like melody in Unreal Square (with a firm nod towards dubstep); and the lush chorale-type harmonies of Red in Blue, performed tonight as a solo bass encore.
After the quasi-R&B experiment of Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator, the somewhat aimless meanderings of Solo Electric Bass 1, and the disco-funk of Just A Souvenir, it is refreshing to hear Squarepusher back in his element as an irreverent and groundbreaking beatsmith, offering a characteristically high-octane mash-up of dance-floor styles to a receptive crowd at Camden’s Roundhouse. Ultimately however, the visuals fail to match the rich textures and sophisticated rhythmic drive of the music, and the few moments of respite from the strobe-like effects when we can actually see Jenkinson strut around the stage wielding his six-string bass confirm the suspicion that this music either does not need visuals to achieve its impact, or requires a subtler interaction between the senses.