Squarepusher's Torturous Bass and Blinding Light: Resistance Is Futile
Jenkinson began this forceful lecture on the extent of his own power before even stepping onstage. Into the silent, lightless theater, a vast panel of LCD screens onstage abruptly flashed the Squarepusher arrow logo in piercing white light, forcing the crowd to squint or look away. Then, with the stage still empty, the P.A. began issuing slow throbs of super-low bass, at a volume level somewhere between oppressive and likely fatal. Fight-or-flight impulses were triggered. Vital organs shuddered. Breathing patterns were disrupted. Instead of music, this was mild torture -- its mass crushing, its steady repetition terrifying, even with the knowledge that it was part of the show.
Soon we began to hear the sound of dirty metal grinding in slow, reverberant agony on top of the low-end. The bass grew louder, hitting the resonant frequencies of the various materials making up the former movie theater. The metallic highs screamed on in electronic pain. There was still no one on stage.
We wondered how long this abuse would last. People standing nearby looked nervous. We fought the urge to leave, to just get out from under the flattening heft of these sonics and into a place where our lungs could properly expand. Was this a test? Was Jenkinson trying to deafen us? Were there really bartenders doing their regular Thursday night job in the back of a room where this paying audience of geeks and weirdos might just die of bass?
Even as he began to work through the milder, more musical tracks off his new album, Ufabulum, we saw Squarepusher's performance as a single-minded demonstration of power -- as him trying to prove and reprove his skill, his accumulation of merit. I can do technical things really well, he seemed to say, as jungle beats went skittering off into hyperactive nonsense, and synth lines sped up faster and faster, only to collide into noisy, clattering oblivion.
Unlike many producers of electronic music, Jenkinson wants his audience to see him performing: two lights above his control surface let us watch his fingers fluttering around, pinching, turning, and pressing various buttons, all of which had immediate, noticeable effects on the music. (This intent was made even more clear during the encore, when Jenkinson picked up a six-string electric bass and made sounds with it we didn't even know were possible.) Where most producers keep a beat going between tracks, or at least some kind of woozy synth atmosphere, Jenkinson stopped the music dead, and the lights, too: This wasn't a dance party where it fell on him to entertain the crowd. Here we were expected to cheer and scream -- to almost beg -- for him to relieve us from the silence. Again, the message: Squarepusher is in control.
The visual symbolism of the show also betrayed Jenkinson's intent to dominate his audience: His control booth stood in front of a giant LCD panel, and was itself fronted by a slightly smaller LCD panel, both of which showed the same abstract, moving grayscale patterns (think your iTunes visualizer circa 2004). Jenkinson himself wore a helmet with a face visor covered in LCDs, hiding his eyes and much of his visage from the crowd. Gazing up at this panorama of electronic light, one got the sense of being utterly overwhelmed, forced into surrender by some Borg-like power. Jenkinson, his face already replaced by the obliterating material, was the ambassador for this great digital beast, its first convert. As his vision -- his humanity -- was exchanged for a sizzling white pattern, so would ours be. There was no seduction, or invitation, or equivocation. No words were needed. Resistance was futile. From the first moment to the last, Squarepusher came not to please its audience, but to rule over it.