Thursday, March 19, 2015

Squarepusher at the Barbican Centre, 18th March 2015

Jesus fucking Christ. Where to begin? I've been a lot of bizarre concerts and heard a lot of weird music. But Squarepusher at the Barbican was (by some distance) the craziest, most aggressive electronic gig I've ever attended. Firmly putting the 'mental' in 'experimental music', this was about 90 minutes of ear-splitting, atonal noise accompanied by gigantic epilepsy-inducing abstract visuals.

Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) emerged from the electronica scene of the mid-90s and has subsequently been producing music that ranges from drum n' bass to soothing ambient electro (and almost everything in between). I got into him after seeing the Chris Cunningham directed video for Come On My Selector sometime in the late 90s, my teenage self highly impressed with the equally barmy audio and visuals. Now, after forays into jazz, solo bass guitar and last year's Music for Robots project, in which Jenkinson collaborated with a team of Japanese engineers to create robots capable of playing beyond the capabilities of puny flesh musicians, he's back in the studio for Damogen Furies, his fourteenth album.

2015 is an interesting time for Squarepusher's brand of electronica. With EDM surging in popularity, temptation has come knocking at the door. Cover yourself in LEDs, laser beams and billowing crowds of dry ice, play tracks constructed around gigantic bass drops and watch the money roll in. Though this gig firmly isn't appealing to the mainstream, elements of popular EDM have nonetheless crept in. Hidden amongst the clanging atonal madness are the odd build up and big drop, a couple of synth melodies and what almost sounds like a sample from The Cure's Just Like Heaven. That aside, this is fiercely aggressive, head-meltingly strange music - bizarre to the point that I'm perplexed that enough people like this stuff to fill the Barbican Hall.

As I sat there getting my face blasted off I looked around the seated crowd, wondering just who the hell these people were. I can only assume they're old school rave casualties: so accustomed to high BPM acid-techno that they can now stomach only the most corrosive of of corrosive music. Even among this sturdy lot reactions varied; one gangly man attempted to gain access to the stage, then proceeded to cavort, limbs flailing, around the auditorium, closely pursued by security. Conversely a steady stream of people left throughout the show, presumably having been bludgeoned into submission by what was blaring out of the speakers.

One of the visuals.
As for me? From minute one I didn't know which  way was up. I felt like a prospective astronaut in high-G training, spun to dizzy unconsciousness in a giant centrifuge. At times it was like I was hearing five gigs at once, jagged shards of sound jumbling up together into something weird and alien. The brain doesn't quite know which angle to approach this from, the moment you identify what could plausibly be melodic progression things collapse into a hail of dissonant squeals and beeps. At it's peak I'm listening to music so fast that's one or two steps removed from static; a decent simulation of what it's like to be a superintelligent robot with a really bad migraine.

The visuals are similarly screwed. Endless tunnels of glitched out graphics and monochrome DOS smears pop up at a rate of two a second. Complex patterns, text and diagrams spin past, too rapid for the brain to process. The effect is as if Squarepusher is downloading something directly into our minds, beating the doors of perception tdown. There's a cyberpunk flavour throughout, the iconography of computing harnessed in an attempt to simulate silicon life. Eyes glued, ears ringing and mouth hanging slackly open it's as if you're living through William Gibson's wettest dream.

It ends with a hundred ears ringing in unison and shellshocked eyes blinking in confusion. I'm not sure I 'enjoyed' this gig per se, it was more as if something had happened to me over which I had no control, like being swept up in an tsunami of noise. On a visceral level I feel (even the next day) like a pneumatic drill has been taken to my head, but I also feel a strange calm, no matter what craziness the world throws at me I can probably deal with. 

Squarepusher is really pushing the boat out here - casting his net towards the bonkers end of the musical spectrum in an avalanche of unfriendly abstract sound. It's hard to imagine how much further he could go than this. It's hard to imagine that audiences could take much more than this.

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