3 out of 5
Label: Warp Records
Produced by: Tom Jenkinson
I can’t help but look for structure in albums. It’s how I make sense of them when trying to process how I feel about them, maybe especially when I’m a little conflicted. That structure may not be intended – may not actually exist beyond my attempt to foist it upon the music! – but it still seems valid if something about the material allows me to find such a structure. (Or the opposite – I go looking and can’t find one, and that can factor into things as well.)
…It’s helpful when reacting to albums like Be Up a Hello, which I instantly love, but then also oddly find it hard to connect with. Constructed from older, 90s-era synths, Squarepusher’s – Tom Jekinson’s – 2020 effort is as energetic and emotive as the amazing, preceding Damogen Furies, except there’s more of a distance felt in the music; this, ultimately, is what prevented my connection, and the structure I’m identifying here somewhat vibes with that.
Because Tom has made a career out of refiguring himself and his sounds album by album, project by project, and then there’s Be Up’s decision to go back to old tech. It does seem to suggest something about the approach to the music: in approximately 2-song batches, I feel like the album shifts through approximate “styles” of electro and Squarepusher, in an almost uncertain, and maybe “faux” fashion – like pretending to act a certain way. The act is incredibly convincing (and backed up by Jenkinson’s insane sense of how to break and reconstruct songs), but it also both fractures the listening experience – I don’t think it’s exactly seamless as we go from section to section – and, purposefully or not, creates that aforementioned distancing wall.
The album kicks off with incredibly poppy, cheerful tunes. It’s hard not to get amped up by these – I mean, you very much should – but this is also the first bit of play-acting, with Squarepusher putting on a smile and being a rave-up, celebratory party champ, showcasing his retro gear. There’s then a reply to this: followups Nervelevers and Speedcrank are kneejerk grim; pouting. The former is pretty stripped down, stepping away from the spotlight of the openers, and then Speedcrank is rather appropriately named, drilling hard and with a menacing tone. These moody ups and down are at odds, creating our third, contemplative section – the open-ended Detroit People Mover and Vortrack, the latter of which patiently works through its clipped beat until arriving at a powerful “conclusion” in its final section. (I find it interesting that this was released as a single, since it’s maybe the album’s most emotionally complex track, but not representative of its general sound.)
Things are processed, and the album can now open up: Terminal Slam and Mekrev Bass are all-timers, all the weird-ass funky breakbeat awesome of Jenkinson, pushing his synths to a very modern, cutting edge sound, cutting through everything we’ve heard on the album up to this point – aggressive and celebratory at the same time.
But just to drive home the overall rather conflicted nature of the disc, we close on the quiet 80 Ondula, which avoids any sense of a traditional conclusion.
Individually, all of these tracks are winners, and I think the construction – at least the b.s. way I’m reading it – is fascinating as well. Stuck together as a listening experience, though, it feels stop and go, and like it’s not really unleashed until its penultimate tracks.
The bonus track edition has a Vortrack remix, which rather removes that songs dynamism, unfortunately, but Vicsynth1.3 Test Track 1 is an excellent bit of cut-and-paste IDM. The hour long NTS MIX 22-06-19 is great for showing – for those of us who’ve never experienced electro live – how this stuff can work in a non-studio setting, letting beats ride out and amping up and down with some absolutely breakout moments that give way to breathing room bits. It’s not a boring mix, but it is constructed to give your ears a break here and there, so rather perfect for background music.