When the British government brought in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994, they signalled an end to a golden era of electronic music and culture. The right to assemble in large groups outdoors and host free rave concerts was specifically targeted, and in banning its performance, a dismissive legal description of the culture’s music was condescendingly given as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” The rave scene - perhaps England’s largest and most exciting counterculture phenomenon since the heyday of the swinging ‘60s - was gone, and the Second Summer of Love of ’88/’89 denied an opportunity to ever come again. The free-spirit youth culture of techno, MDMA, LSD, and free parties for all was ended, and the government seemed for all intents and purposes to have won. Little did the politicians know that they had just sown the seeds for one of the most revolutionary and experimental shifts in modern musical history - barred from the fields, electronic music migrated to living rooms, headphones, and heights of intricacy never before imagined. Intelligent dance music, as it was later called, had been born.
In the aftermath of the rave bill, as it came to be known, a generation of kids who had grown up around rave culture - including The Streets’ Mike Skinner, who ruefully said in his 2002 rave tribute Weak Become Heroes “to the government, I stick my middle finger up with regards to the Criminal Justice Bill” - felt the scene collapse around them. Among these were the rave producers themselves, who were suddenly without audiences and in dire need of a new direction, a means of protest against the government who so despised their idea of a good time. For their part, rave darlings Orbital led the charge with a track called Criminal Justice Bill? that featured four minutes of silence, while The Prodigy urged fans through their liner notes to “fight this bollocks” as songs like Their Law became anti-government anthems, and Network Records’ No Repetitive Beats series aimed to raise money to replace stereo equipment seized by police enforcing their unprecedented new power.
Autechre took a difference tact. Hilarious liner notes aside, the release of their Anti EP can now be seen as a major watershed moment for electronic music in the 1990s, as it ushered in an alternative viewpoint for what electronic music represented in the light of rave’s demise. The EP - all profits from which were donated to the National Council for Civil Liberties - represented a seismic shift in direction for the duo, who had previously specialised in a slightly more aggressive and experimental take on the acid house and ambient techno formula so prevalent in the early ‘90s. With Anti, Autechre’s sound was stripped bare and opened up, revealing complex layers of mathematical intricacy run through with human emotion and an achingly unconventional beauty. Flutter itself still stands one of the duo’s most stunning records, so achingly transcendent that in many ways it served as the spiritual - and political - successor to Orbital’s unsurpassable Belfast.
Anti came out on Warp Records, a label run by two likeminded friends who had started printing vivid purple experimental electronic vinyl in ’89. At the time of the rave bill, the imprint had already made a name for itself as the home of a movement that went beyond the confines of doof doof music and veered into a far deeper and more introspective headspace. In ’92, Autechre themselves were featured prominently on the first compilation of the label’s landmark Artificial Intelligence series, and these days the tracklist of that release - alongside its ’94 follow-up - reads like a who’s-who of forward-thinking U.K. talent for the time. Artists like Richie Hawtin, Black Dog Productions, and one Richard D. James assumed a series of hilarious pseudonyms for the records, which were some of the first electronic releases to be specifically targeted at home listeners. As it turned out, there was in fact a huge group of such listeners, who’d wandered in cold from the rave scene and gone looking for records with greater depth and complexity than the standard fare of those events, more often a visceral experience than a cerebral one.
“We used to take our tracks into [Manchester record shop] Eastern Bloc and they'd just laugh at us because it weren't dance floor enough. Then when we met Warp—we'd been sending them demos for a year but we properly met them in '92—they didn't really know about this stuff either, so we were kind of discovering it together with them. That AI series really came about because we were going, “We wanna put some tracks out,” and they were going, “Yeah, but there's no context for this music, we don't know how to market it or anything.” So they really decided they needed to make some context for it.”
- Autechre's Sean Booth in a new interview with Resident Advisor
What emerged from that period of insular experimentation is the stuff of legend. James - better known by his main alias Aphex Twin - in particular received a large amount of attention for his lauded experiments in ambient techno that first appeared on debut album Selected Ambient Works ’85-’92. This, along with Autechre’s stunningly beautiful ’94 sophomore record Amber, helped to pave the way for a form of electronic music that had previously not been conceived of. That the seemingly ignorant drugged-out kids who’d provided the soundtrack to the rave movement could refine their sound into an experimental oasis of floating ambience and alien intellectualism was extraordinary. Suddenly, dance music was being made for people with not only two left feet but two left brains, often more mathematical than musical, and more complex than anything we’d heard before.
Some listen to music because they want to be entertained, while others listen because they want to hear something that matches a mood or puts them in a particular frame of mind. Still others - and this is most IDM listeners - listen because they want to have an audible soundtrack to the chaos or the strangeness or the breakneck poetry of thought and life. IDM is the noise inside our heads made exterior, tangible, shareable; it is aural intelligence of the first order, an insular peek into the way some of us conceptualise life or think when we’re alone. And IDM mirrored life, even as it soundtracked the cultural upheaval of the ‘90s, quickly becoming weirder, louder, and more difficult. Ambience gave way to static, rhythm gave way to disjointed clangs and bleeps, and melody sometimes disappeared altogether. In many ways, it was a renaissance of the mid-century classical experimentalism of John Cage and his contemporaries, only emboldened and expanded by the technological age in which it was created.
At one time, about thirty years before the advent of IDM, the boundary-pushing jazz music of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman served a similar purpose. After all, the jazz artists who left the most indelible marks with their records relentlessly pushed the genre forward because they understood that - at its core - jazz music depends on innovation above all else. Without the drive to create something previously unheard, jazz becomes little more than another dull genre weak against the tide of time. It is perhaps because of this very fact that jazz is now the least purchased genre in the United States and an all-but-deceased movement in popular music; when the next wave of musicians chose to carry on Davis’ legacy by emulating the music he made in the ‘50s and ‘60s instead of creating something for themselves, they signed away the future of a beautiful art form. Repetition is anathema to jazz; the point was always to strive for something new, that’s why artists like Davis were so great. These days, it seems few jazz musicians have the guts to stray from the standards and make something truly original.
That burden of innovation has migrated to other genres to some extent. When jazz reached its peak of experimentation with Coleman’s 1961 classic Free Jazz, it didn’t take long for glib overexertion to toll the death knell on other attempts to further his work. Now, it falls on ambitious scientists like Autechre, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Burial, Venetian Snares, Amon Tobin, and their like to advance the cause of originality in sound. They are more or less all burdened with the unfortunate honour of being known as “intelligent dance music,” but the title given to them is ultimately irrelevant. Beyond genre, they are the gatekeepers of innovation, experimentation, and sonic adventurism. Many of them have perhaps already reached the zenith of their careers; still others have masterpieces ahead of them, perhaps entirely new genres, new movements up their sleeve.
For a peek at how far some of these artists are willing to go, have a listen to Autechre’s seminal 2001 opus Confield. Regarded no doubt by many as largely unlistenable and unpleasant chaos, the album represents some of the finest advancements in technologically-minded sound design and conceptual innovation electronic music has ever seen. And it is not devoid of beauty, either. For isn’t there often beauty in chaos, or a strange peace in madness, unease, fear? Isn’t it the job of art to express our human experience, our subjective view of the world, and can’t that ever be something hard to bear? Albums like Confield boldly take on a harder task than many, focusing on the darkness, the underside of life that rarely gets its due in expression. For those listeners unwilling to stray too far beyond songs that explore only the surface or the lighter end of the spectrum, it will be several steps too far into the extreme. But for some, an album like Confield can sit just right, stimulating the brain or evoking emotions in ways that other music just can’t.
“We'd always done that stuff! We'd always done tracks that seemed too weird to put out, and just put them on DATs and called them our “Noises DATs.” We'd do 'em for listening to, just for us. So when I first heard Mille Plateaux, it was a definite, “Fuck, I do tracks like this, but I just never put 'em out because nobody wants them!” Then suddenly labels wanted it. Some of that stuff on the Gescom Minidisc was really old, and we'd just never thought anyone would put it out. This is back to them early days of taking tapes to Eastern Bloc and them just laughing. At the time I used to think, “Fuck you, this is really good, you're just not listening right.” I was a right arrogant little shit, I really thought, “You're wrong, I'm right, these tracks are good, and you don't get it and in five years you'll be wishing you'd put em out.” They wouldn't have made any money though.”
- Autechre's Sean Booth in a new interview with Resident Advisor
I’ll admit my own difficulty in originally taking to Autechre when I was first recommended them in 2007. A dyed-in-the-wool Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada fanatic, I just couldn’t bring myself to crack the ice cold, barren barrier that seemed to keep me from accessing the emotional heart of such music. As extreme as other IDM music gets, I always found that even tracks like Aphex Twin’s Ventolin and Venetian Snares’ Hajnal had at their centre a human emotion that made them connect with me. Autechre, on the other hand, always sounded too robotic, too distant to ever be relatable. These days, I view it all quite differently, but I’m not embarrassed that it took me a while; perhaps it would be a disservice to such ambitious music if we all immediately found it likeable. After all, many works of art can be difficult at first, yet no less important: who enjoyed Eraserhead when they first saw it in the cinema? Was Pan’s Labyrinth easy to sit through? Do we take a look at Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death when we need cheering up? This music is about more than entertainment; it’s about something far more important, something intrinsic to the purpose and value of great art.
Part of what is so fascinating about it IDM is that it couldn’t have existed at any time before its creation. That is to say that the technology, the capability, the inclination simply was not there. To reinvent electronic music, gain a legion of converted fans, and reinvent the wheel again year by year is a seismic shift in the way we conceptualise electronic music and its purpose. Album by album, the visionaries of this medium have proven unafraid of alienating fans. They have embraced the myriad possibilities of the seemingly bottomless well of what technology can help us to accomplish. Such a shift is emblematic of other, parallel, movements in contemporary art and film, where digital methods are expanding palettes exponentially. Yet music listeners have perhaps proven somewhat more resistant to the idea of music as art for experience rather than art for easy enjoyment, for analysation rather than for relaxation. Autechre, for their part, seem at ease with their status as fringe madmen: their twelfth studio album elseq 1–5 - four hours of almost-formless algorithmic noise - was released last month, perhaps their most inaccessible work yet.
The only member of the scene to have been recognised by some in the mainstream, Richard D. James has a new EP out next month named Cheetah which comes replete with its own hilarious website. With that release, the enigmatic producer looks set to so begin the next phase of his career and perhaps the next wave of IDM’s development. But really, the movement comprised of these artists - assembled under any genre tag you prefer - is about more than one man or one point in time. This is about the preservation and fate of innovation in the 21st century, an era when preservation often seems to be a four letter word. This is about the fight to create, the drive to discover, and the beauty of the unexpected. This is about finding boundaries, crossing over them, and setting your eyes to the horizon in the search for more. Integral to our modern lives and culture, this is the story of electronic music and its unapologetic curiosity against all odds. But more than anything else, this is the story of how a bunch of guys with a liking for machines and an eye for the finer details stuck it to the man and changed everything in the process.
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