Arrhythmic Beats - IDM
I promised a friend at a coffee shop I'd write up a list of my thoughts on IDM, aka "Intelligent Dance Music". It only took a year, but here it is.
The term “Intelligent Dance Music” emerged in the early 90s to describe a lot of the Warp label’s artists. At the time, Warp was aiming for a post-club, at-home kind of music. The idea was that the music had too many beats to be ambient, but was usually too rhythmically complex to actually be danced to. (While many of the artists involved dislike the term, no better term ever stuck. For a hot moment in the late 90’s, it seemed like it would be “electronica”, but that was broader in scope, and didn’t last.)
Many of the artists seem to follow a certain progression: over time they become ever more experimental, and the music becomes more skittery and abstract. I personally love when artists successfully walk the fine line between ambient and dance, hooks and experiments, so I tend to favor most artists’ early/middle work. I personally believe that music should have a visceral component, that becoming too experimental robs it of something in favor of a head-heavy approach, and my reviews reflect that. But that’s just me.
What follows are my personal favorite IDM artists and albums from that era, with random notes and asides.
Richard D. James is amazingly talented, but also a bit of a cheeky wanker. He once lived in an old bank vault and drove a tank around town.
- Richard D. James Album - this is the one that kicked it off for me. Growing up in southern Virginia, I’d never heard anything like it. This is still my favorite era of Aphex Twin.
- ...I Care Because You Do - the album that preceded Richard D James, and similar in style. (Also check out the unreleased Melodies From Mars if you like this period.)
- Selected Ambient Works 85-92 - his first album is very danceable, since much of it was written when he was a teenage DJ.
- Selected Ambient Works 2 - the album that made him famous - More ambient in tone, but with many interesting experiments that go way beyond Eno’s original ambient concepts.
Aphex Twin had multiple aliases, including AFX and Polygon Window. His own label released a zillion Analog Bubblebath compilations.
Boards of Canada
Despite the name, they’re a couple of Scottish dudes who made music for sitting around the campfire with their art collective. Apparently they were big fans of the Film Board of Canada.
- Music Has the Right to Children - their first album, and their best. They coaxed a warmth rarely heard from electronic instruments.
- Twoism - an early EP off the Skam label, quite good
Why these guys weren’t bigger, I’ve never understood. Both Aphex and Boards of Canada achieved breakout success, but not Autechre. The rumor was their name was short for “Audio Technology Research”, but they claimed the name was formed starting with “au” and then bashing the keyboard, which makes more sense, given their song titles.
- Incunabula - their first album, and one of their best.
- Amber - their followup album, and a bit more gentle rhythmically.
- Tri Repetae - pretty good
- Anvil Vapre - a harsh, almost metal version of their sound
- Garbage - lush, more ambient, and one of the most beautiful things they ever created. I used to put this on after raves, and I forever associate it with driving back from one party the next morning in the rain while my friends snoozed in the car.
- LP5 - a transitional record. Some tracks are fantastic, like Rae and Corc, but overall, this marks Autechre’s shift into more experimental realms
Also worth hunting down are shadowy Gescom releases (rumored to be short for Gestalt Communications), which Ae frequently contributed to.
Fun little fact: they released an album, Anti, in response to a law criminalizing parties in Britain with a "succession of repetitive beats" by removing all repetition. It came with a sticker attesting to its legality, but suggested you still have a lawyer present just in case.
Plaid / The Black Dog
While two different bands, they were originally one. Two of the founders of The Black Dog split off to make Plaid. They were associated with Bjork, and Plaid’s remix of her song, All Is Full of Love, is well worth a listen.
- Not For Threes - first album, standouts are Myopia, Kortisin, Prague Radio, Rakimou, and Lilith, which Bjork guest vocals for
- Rest-Proof Clockwork - the follow-up, also pretty good
- The Digging Remedy - I was fairly luke-warm to a lot of their 2000's output, but I recently listened to this and it was way better than I expected
Mouse on Mars
A couple of German fellows who crafted weird mixes of ambient, dub, and squiggly tunes. More playful than most artists of the era.
Check out Autoditacker and Niun Niggung. (Amusing little tidbit: a friend bought Autoditacker on vinyl, and didn’t notice it was supposed to be spun at 45 RPM instead of 33 1/3. But at 33 1/3, it has a really dank, funky vibe to it, so we kept playing it like that for a while.)
Kind of low-key, and heavily influenced by Detroit techno, their album Time Tourist was a go-to whenever I wanted some chill IDM. Electro-Soma is also pretty good, and collects a lot of their early EPs. Sometimes called themselves Musicology and Redcell.
- Artificial Intelligence 1 and 2 - the Warp compilations that announced the arrival of their sound. Features Aphex Twin (as Polygon Window), Autechre, B12 (as Musicology), The Black Dog (as IAO), and The Orb (as Dr Alex Patterson). Mix of more dance-y stuff along with the IDM they’d soon become known for.
- Warp10+3 Remixes - for their tenth anniversary, Warp released a double album of everyone remixing each other
- We Are Reasonable People - a later-period Warp compilation, features a good overview of the label from the late 90s
Others I liked
These were all artists I listened to then, but have fallen by the wayside over the past twenty years. Some were big, some were obscure.
- Matmos - A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure
- µ-Ziq - check out Lunatic Harness. His label, Planet Mu, released several IDM artists.
- Arovane - bit like early Autechre
- Pole - deep spacey minimalist dub, check out albums 3 and 1
- Future Sound of London - more on avant-techno/dance side
- Plone - super-twee and cute, like Fisher-Price synths
- The Orb - ambient house with a tinge of psychedelia, check out UFOrb and Orbus Terrarum
- Plastikman - more on the techno side
- LFO - more on the underground techno side, never released much material, but were very influential
- Nightmares on Wax - more avant-techno, like LFO and Plastikman
- Coil - dark, post-industrial
Others I never personally got into, but who knows, maybe you will, gentle reader?
Squarepusher, Prefuse 73, Oval, Fennesz, Venetian Snares, Bochum Welt, Two Lone Swordsmen, Daedalus, Luke Vibert, Meat Beat Manifesto
Some of this stuff isn’t quite IDM, but may have been influenced by it.
- Solvent - love this guy, check out Solvent City
- Oneohtrix Point Never - love him, too!
- Ulrich Schnauss
- Four Tet
- Isan - same label as Solvent
Also, if anything I linked to in Spotify says it's not from the 90's, that's a damn lie. Spotify can't seem to stop increasing album years whenever something is remastered or deluxed, which is mega-annoying when trying to follow an artist's trajectory.
Oddities and Rarities
One thing the artists of the time had a fetish for, was embedding images in spectrograms of their music. Plaid, Aphex Twin, Autechre and Venetian Snares all snuck this into their work. See Magnetic Mag for pics.
Another thing these artists had a fetish for, was unpronounceable track names. I can’t explain that other than to say it seemed more robot-like?
If you can track it down, Autechre made a great remix of Stereolab’s Miss Modular.
As mentioned above, Aphex Twin’s unreleased album Melodies From Mars is worth a download.
Autechre once released a MiniDisc-only album as Gescom, designed to take advantage of the MiniDisc’s ability to shuffle without gaps (which most CD players couldn’t do at the time). They made 88 super-short tracks meant to be shuffled seamlessly so you never heard the same album twice.
That's all, hope you enjoyed it!