Recorded at a spate of recent outings, Shobaleader One’s Elektrac consists mostly of covers from Squarepusher’s formidable back catalog, from his first album through 2008’s Just A Souvenir. Live humans playing music for robots – very funky robots – makes this record something to get excited about.
Also known by the more conventional moniker Tom Jenkinson, Squarepusher has been an undisputed titan of the drum ‘n’ bass and IDM scenes since his 1996 debut album, Feed Me Weird Things. More than just an innovative programmer and electronic musician, Jenkinson is also a true, old-fashioned virtuoso on the electric bass. While other artists in electronica are content to make push-button music, Jenkinson brings his synthesized and sequenced sounds into the realm of live performance, no mean feat considering the marriage of speed and rhythmic complexity may be his most defining trait.
Enter Shobaleader One, the tantalizingly mysterious band of presumably live humans who first joined Jenkinson for d’Demonstrator (2010), which shied away from Squarepusher’s typically frenetic pace in favor of a retro-futurist’s version of pop, rock and R&B. Aside from the conceptual nature of the music, the gimmick was visual: live, Squarepusher and his bandmates were cloaked in dark, hooded garb not unlike the Egyptian jellabiya, while outfitted with flashing LCD-screens meant to obscure their faces and their identities. Imagine a four-man tribe of LCD-enhanced Jawas (with all the tall genes) standing in for the Cantina Band in a timeline where it’s not required that the Star Wars universe be at least 50% lame. A few strictly Squarepusher albums later – including the eminently relevant EP Music for Robots (on which Jenkinson’s music was played by actual robots) – Shobaleader One has returned with a second offering that fulfills its promise as Squarepusher’s live band.
In most cases, the band’s nearly superhuman ability to execute the speed and complexity of tracks like “Coopers World” and “E8 Boogie” is more than enough to breathe new life into music that was already very much alive. Jenkinson in particular has the astounding skill to nonchalantly breeze through solo licks reminiscent of bass legends like Jaco Pastorius (“The Swifty”) or Victor Wooten (“Deep Fried Pizza”). But inhumanly fast music is exhilarating only if it sounds effortless; in Jenkinson’s case it is.
Unfortunately, Shobaleader One’s drummer, officially identified as Company Laser, at times, makes himself needlessly conspicuous. Not that Mr. Laser falls short in speed or accuracy or even effortlessness; breakneck speed and precision can sound like a million bucks, but the ability to genuinely rock steady is worth its weight in fucking gold. Let’s be honest, in a case like this it’s a wholly forgivable (and understandable) offense that Shobaleader’s Company Man is so eagerly chomping at the musical bit that he occasionally attempts to jack up the tempo, only to be steadily and decisively ignored by his compatriots.
Likewise, there is virtuosity in restraint, and M. Laser’s hyperactive vamping on “Iambic 5 Poetry,” the only moment of rest on an otherwise frantic album, is another minor mark against him. It’s possible that nobody will care about such flaws, as they’re easily overlooked and were probably even more forgivable in live performance, when the pure energy of this enterprise was more than enough to carry away an audience.