Presents Maximum Priest E.P. (Nothing/Interscope)

Aug 11, 1999 at 4:00 am
If '70s fusion jazz and '90s electronica share one trait, it's the ease with which both quickly and painfully can devolve into ridiculous, self-indulgent wanking. A fine line separates the brilliance of Miles Davis' live documents from the early '70s, especially the transcendent Black Beauty, from Stanley Clarke's masturbatory shallowness. Similarly, jungle papa Goldie's recent work takes itself so seriously that any innovation is overshadowed by his intolerably furrowed "I am an artist" brow. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher, whose gloriously unpretentious output is some of the deepest and most inspired music, electronic or otherwise, being made today.

And, actually, the "electronica" tag — though on the surface and in the stores it hits the mark — is a misnomer when it comes to Squarepusher. Yes, he did get his start working with the Aphex Twin's Rephlex records, and he does spring from the general vicinity of the drum & bass world, but from the start Jenkinson has eschewed linear stutter-thump rhythms in favor of a wandering breadth. Whereas on something like a Luke Vibert record you can assume a solid rhythm is gonna rear its ugly head soon enough, that's never the case with Squarepusher. You're just as likely to be treated to a simple but entirely engaging organ melody for six or seven minutes, with short beat bursts sneaking in — as on the opening cut of his amazing EP Song: Our Underwater Torch — as you are to hear a breakbeat breakdown.

Maximum Priest is a half-hour dirge, with four new songs and three remixes (among them a minimal Autechre survey of "Two Bass Hit" from last year's Budakhan Mindphone EP and a mantraesque Wagonchrist — Luke Vibert — examination of "Shin Triad" from Squarepusher's most recent full-length, Music Is Rotted One Note), and there's not a bum note on it. It's no accident that Miles Davis' '70s lagoon music is often mentioned in the same breath as Squarepusher's recent work; they have a spiritual, and stylistic, kinship. Both isolate sounds and rhythms inside a kind of stew, and both employ melody as a device rather than rely blindly on it.

If there's any fault at all to Squarepusher's ap-proach, it's the occasional deliberateness with which he borrows from the Davis aesthetic. At times he seems to simply replicate and update the sound of free fusion, tossing in some staccato beats where Billy Cobham or Jack DeJohnette would be on a Davis recording. But that's nit-picky, because mainly what Jenkinson steals is nothing more than the Davis ideal, which is that by ignoring time and rhythm restraints, outside structural assumptions and artistic expectations, a new world of musical possibility reveals itself, and that pure freedom lies in the knowledge that there are no boundaries but those that are self-imposed.

This knowledge has served countless artists well in unchaining themselves, and in the ultrarestrictive, beat-based world of electronic music, what we need are more people like Jenkinson (and Aphex and Autechre) to discover that the hard rules of the hard drive can be tossed in the trash as easily as a Word document can. You just drag and drop.