The 1990’s was a fantastic time to be a music fan. From the Britpop battles that soundtracked toasty August heatwaves, to bands like Nirvana being considered a mainstream entity…
The 90’s cast off the mostly-awful production values of the 1980’s, threw most of its synthesisers in the bin and gave music a new, more aggressive outlook. But it wasn’t just bands and guitar-based rock that came on in leaps and bounds – dance music, too, thrived in this new era of creative freedom, with superstar and bedroom DJ alike experimenting and inventing a myriad of new sub-genres. One of these musical microcosms was to be given the name Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM.
Generally eschewing the commonplace time structures that had shackled dance music, this new genre was often almost impossible to dance to at all. The music was created by artists whose take on electronic music didn’t start and end on the dance floor. Artists wanted to prove that dance music was not ‘mindless’. The title may sound pretentious, but the music is full of life, fun and passion, and whilst there are hundreds of releases that deserve to be listened to, the selection below offer a stepping stone into one of music’s interesting branches. Enjoy!
Whilst I’m normally loathe to recommend a compilation (long live the album!), this introduction to one of the key record labels in IDM is a fantastic way to sample how diverse and encompassing the genre can be. Founded by Richard D. James, the artist best known by moniker Aphex Twin, Rephlex was a revolutionary independent label that offered its artists unprecedented control over their music – not to mention 50/50 split royalties. Tracks here range from eerie, string-sampling slow jams, to the utterly explosive – the drill ‘n’ bass insanity of Aphex’s own Mangle 11 (Circuit Bent VIP Mix). Truly, something for everyone!
If any album on this list could be pointed to as ‘genre defining’, this debut release from Scottish duo Boards of Canada is it. Released on Warp Records – easily the most influential label in the genre – the album is a showcase for the ideas and sonic touches that would permeate the group’s work right up until modern day. The atmosphere of the album is dark and brooding, and the synths, sounding like they’re played from heat-warped film reels, mesh perfectly with the breakbeat drum patterns. Most haunting of all is the use of vocal samples taken from old instructional videos shown to Canadian schoolchildren during the 1970’s (the name Boards of Canada derives from the National Film Board of Canada, where many of the group’s samples originated). Moody and gritty, as an album to listen to in the wee small hours, or on a cold Monday commute, it is unsurpassed.
Easily the toughest listen of the albums listed here, Tri Repetae from the Manchester-born duo Autechre is a difficult but ultimately rewarding work. Released way back in 1995, the duo’s records were already becoming known for their industrial, harsh sounding beats, but with Tri Repetae they pushed their sound to even darker places. Second track Clipper offers a thudding bass drum, ghostly electronic glitches, an eerie melody and fantastically chunky synth chords, and it’s as close as the album gets to straightforward melodic composition. It’s an amazing song, and its 9 minutes are amongst the best that the genre has to often. Stick with this one, you’ll be glad you did!
London-based Tom Jenkinson AKA Squarepusher has been making some of the most creative, intense and unique music in the genre for nearly 20 years. Spanning a multiverse of styles, his latest releases have seen him (amongst other things) programme music for a robot band to play, and performing all of his insanely fast-paced tracks live on his favoured instrument of bass guitar. His seminal release Do You Know Squarepusher saw Jenkinson at the height of his powers, offering a gritty musical collage for a grimy North London backdrop. The eponymous title track is a masterful mix of melody and scattergun drum programming, and is as good a track as any other producer in the field has ever made. A Live in Japan second disc is included on the original release and offers a fantastic document of Squarepusher’s high octane performances.
Rightly credited as the album that kickstarted the whole IDM scene, Aphex Twin’s ‘SAW 85-92’ is a superb selection of bass-heavy, acid-tinged dance music – perfect for a sunny Summer evening! Showing a great deal less intensity than a lot of Aphex’s later work, the songs bubble and fizz, and genuinely offer something to get your feet moving. In the hands of another artist, these tracks could take on a more prosaic form, but Aphex Twin’s fascination with off-kilter chord structures and breakbeat drums make this a must listen for those wanting to start off at the shallow end!
Author – Chris, Liverpool store