Warp Records’ “Artificial Intelligence” series, 25 years on

I don’t intend to write often about music on this blog, but a recent Guardian article reminded me that a group of albums that I love are approaching their quarter-century. Given that they transformed my musical tastes, I thought it worth revisiting them and the effect they had on me. Also, in an era where information can be found in seconds, it’s interesting to look back at a time when cryptic liner notes and credits were all you had to go on when making discoveries and connections.

Many 1990s retrospectives follow a predictable line of easy signposts: early 90s rave, baggy, shoegaze (if you’re lucky), grunge, Britpop, drum n’ bass, big beat (if you’re unlucky). Those that dig a little deeper will cover the underground electronica which crossed over (Orbital, Leftfield, Underworld, The Future Sound of London, the Orb, etc.), but some of the most revered acts and albums of the time are those which passed under the radar of the cultural gatekeepers, via the then-Sheffield-based Warp Records, but which ultimately had a huge impact on the development of electronic music.

In 1992 Warp released a compilation called “Artificial Intelligence“. They followed it up the next year with groundbreaking albums by the acts featured on it, making ’93 a year which marks, for me, the highpoint of electronic music*. Easy to forget now, but at this time, it was unusual for the NME (let alone Melody Maker) to cover electronica in much depth: you had to buy DJ or Mixmag (or, later, Muzik); the idea that broadsheet newspapers would review such albums was unthinkable.

Artificial Intelligence

By late 1992 when I started University, my musical tastes were moving away from guitar-based indie. The Shamen and Primal Scream had been my gateway to electronica: firstly to The Orb and Orbital and then, under the influence of my friends, some of the progressive house and early trance of Guerilla Records. The bassline to FSOL’s “Papua New Guinea” alone did much to convert me. This was what the future was going to sound like, and it didn’t involve guitars.

A friend left the CD of Artificial Intelligence at my house along with a host of others, and it was initially the one that looked least promising. Among the rest were Hardfloor’s classic second-wave acid “Trancescript” and a compilation with a superb, and then-rare, remix of Orbital’s “Open Mind“. The green CD with the robot on the front looked impenetrable. But I gave it a spin, possibly because the closing track was a version of “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain” by The Orb’s Alex Paterson (listed here as “Loving You” and credited to Paterson himself for legal reasons).

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The cover image (by Phil Wolstenholme, top) was an exciting – and witty – vision of what computer graphics could do. The message on it is clear: the record is coming from the label which released “LFO”, “Tricky Disco”, “Dextrous” and “Testone” (all on Warp’s own “Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove”, on the floor by the chair), but it isn’t for the dancefloor. “Electronic listening music”, it said. Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk were closer to the mark: this was “music for late nights and chill dawns”.

Most of the electronic stuff I’d listened to so far had been either not too far from the indie-dance stuff, or quite dubby. The abstract, metallic soundscapes on Artificial Intelligence were something new to me. But another of the CDs left with me was Network Records’ superb 1990 compilation Biorhythm (subtitled “dance music with bleeps”), and I listened to these two albums with increasing fascination. Although the tempos of the two CDs were quite different, and the sounds of the Warp one far more abstract, these were my initiation to the world of Detroit techno. It was all new to me: both this second wave of techno, and the late 80s Detroit stuff which had influenced it. The reference points on the AI inlay card were as esoteric as the sounds I was listening to. Who was Derrick May? Well, Biorhythm had the track “Emanon” by Rhythim is Rhythim: there’s your answer.

For music to listen to after a night’s clubbing, ambient had passed its first 89-90 peak (KLF, Orb, 808 State) and not yet found its 1994 second wind (Fax records, Rising High records, SAW2) but as Jochem Paap noted, “ambient means in the background. This focuses on that it has to be listened to.” It seems unbelievable now, but there was little at the time in the mid-tempo range of electronica to sit and listen to. There was club music you could play at home (Orbital were moving towards their trance peak of 1992-3), but it was really designed for dancing. There was ambient (The Irresistible Force’s lovely Flying High was released in ’92, as was UFOrb), but that was for spacing out to. There was a gap in between that needed filling. Dave Simpson in Melody Maker, in his review of AI, noted that this was “music to provoke thought rather than to nullify it”.

And the music? The opening track on the compilation was “Polygon Window” by Aphex Twin (recording as “The Dice Man”, which caused a spike in sales of records by an identically-named – but very different – artist on Vivatonal records). His wonderful “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” was being passed around at the time. This was much more raw, but gripping. I liked the slightly cheesy concept of “Telefone 529” by Musicology (B12) but came to a shuddering halt against “Crystel” by the then-unknown Autechre. “The Clan” by I.A.O. (Black Dog) managed to be both abstract but warm, and so was Speedy J’s “De-Orbit”. “Preminition” by Musicology I disliked for many years: too harsh! too loud! Yet at the same time, the next track was the one that finally hooked me: “Spiritual High” by UP! Another low-key rumble from Autechre followed, then a nice quasi-ambient wash from Speedy J and, to my further surprise, the closing Alex Paterson track stood out like a sore thumb: the track I’d been most keen to hear as a fan of The Orb just did not sit with the other tracks. In the time it had taken to listen to the CD, my tastes needed re-evaluating.

Then, in 1993, we were drip-fed every month or so a new emission from Warp as these artists released their individual albums. The production values were superb: The Designers Republic rarely did better work than their Warp sleeves during this period, and their abstract beauty was a world away from the tired cliches of hyperreal dance music visuals and circuit board imagery.

Polygon Window: “Surfing on Sine Waves”

I love “SAW 85-92” and some of his other tracks, but have never been an Aphex convert. His mid-90s drill & bass stuff left me cold, and there’s a gleeful darkness to much of his work that I couldn’t, and still can’t, get into. The opening track here (“Polygon Window”, again), the scrapyard frenzy of “Quoth” and a few others I can listen to, but I rarely bother and long ago sold my vinyl copy (which I bought in Chalmers & Joy, Dundee: is that shop still there?). But at the time it sounded like nothing else, and that was enough.

Black Dog Productions: “Bytes”

This is great, and a remastered version is long overdue. My cousin had it on (gatefold) vinyl, and it was both accessible and (for early 1993) very odd at the same time. Simon Reynolds described it as being “asymmetrical dance music for beings with an odd number of limbs”. Weird breaks, tracks that seemed to last seconds before veering off at tangents; everything buzzing with unquenchable energy; it was a world unto itself, and remains a highlight of Warp’s back catalogue. Black Dog had been around for several years by this point, and 2007’s “Book of Dogma” gathered their early stuff. By then the trio had long since split (into Plaid and Black Dog) after their 1995 LP “Spanners”. Both acts continue to this day, and whereas Plaid’s stuff I’ve always found a bit insipid, Black Dog still produce deep, thoughtful electronica. This, arguably, is the AI release which has best stood the test of time.

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B12: “Electro-Soma”

This caught my attention as I walked into HMV in Dundee, but the name “B12” meant nothing to me at first. Their tracks on the compilation had been under the Musicology name, and they weren’t happy that Warp marketed them as “B12”. For them, that was the name of their own label, and the tracks they released on it had been under such monikers as Redcell and Cmetric: not “B12”.

This is the AI release that really wound Simon Reynolds up in his 1998 book Energy Flash, but it’s the one I’ve listened to most consistently (and has just been remastered and re-released). What I didn’t know at the time was that the acts were offered fat contracts by Warp (giving Aphex a permanent home and launching Autechre’s career) but B12 rejected the advance. As a result, they released only two more records for Warp (1996’s fine Time Tourist and the ugly duckling drum & bass/jazz of 1998’s 3EP) before going on a decade-long hiatus.

From the opening wash of “Soundtrack of Space” to the plangent “Drift” (vinyl only), I was hooked. It maybe lacked the industrial aggression that the early Detroit releases sublimated, but there was no better gateway drug for me to the Detroit (or Detroit-influenced) sound of techno.

F.U.S.E.: Dimension Intrusion

For many years, this was my favourite album. Although Richie Hawtin’s earlier work as F.U.S.E. was strictly for the dancefloor – and appears here courtesy of cuts such as “Substance Abuse” and “F.U.” – the newer pieces** reflected a change of mood. Introspective, subtle and haunting, “A New Day”, “U.V.A.”, “Mantrax” and the title track blew me away then and still do.

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Hawtin, in coming from Windsor, Canada, was the closest to an actual Detroit artist – and along with Speedy J the only non-UK artist – in the AI series. Dimension Intrusion and Electro-Soma were both compiled from the back catalogues of their owners’ labels (Plus 8 and B12 respectively) with a few new tracks added, rather than being recorded as cohesive albums. In Hawtin’s case, the musical progression, and the shift in style and tempo, is more obvious. Although he mutated into Plastikman and released some excellent music in the rest of the 90s, for me nothing he has done since has matched the atmosphere of the handful of tracks here.

Speedy J: Ginger

Rotterdam’s Jochem Paap was signed to Hawtin’s Plus 8 Records, and “De-Orbit” (which ends the UK release of Ginger) appeared on his 1991 Intercontinental EP for that label. Again, the development of electronic music was so fast at that time that “De-Orbit” already felt out of place, tacked on to the end of an album whose true final track was the gorgeous “Pepper”***. Although Paap later dismissed the album as over-produced, it bleeps and blips serenely, though always with a subtle, steely undercurrent that he let rip on 1997’s Public Energy. Paap released a club-friendly (and now somewhat dated) remix of “Pepper” the following year, and the lovely G Spot album on Warp in 1995 before he, like Hawtin, licensed his UK work to NovaMute.

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Autechre: Incunabula

I never bought this album until 1998, by which time I had all their other releases and had seen them live twice. Although I bought Basscadet in 1994, nothing about the tracks on the compilation could convince me to shell out for their album. A mistake, in hindsight: Incunabula is their most accessible record (which isn’t saying much), and a vast improvement on those two early tracks (“The Egg” reworked here as “Eggshell”). This release was notable for the first appearance of a small “AI” logo, of a smiling face receiving audio waves. Cute, but surely not a good sign?

Artificial Intelligence II

Summer 1994 saw the release of a follow-up compilation. Featuring most of the original artists, plus others, this was a bigger affair, with a broader range of styles reflecting the quantum leaps electronica had made in the intervening 24 months. But for me, more wasn’t necessarily better. Although some of the tracks were outstanding (those by Speedy J, Richard H Kirk and Link in particular), there was a harshness to the likes of Seefeel and Polygon Window that for me defied the whole “listening” concept. It was the final release consciously branded as “Artificial Intelligence” (barring “Motion“, a 40-minute VHS of (for the time) stunning computer animation by Phil Wolstenholme, David Slade and Jess Scott Hunter). As Warp founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell noted, when HMV begins to stock the likes of “Now That’s What I Call Artificial Intelligence!”, the movement is over.

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The series, though, signified a huge change in the culture of dance & electronic music. Acts had released albums before with mixed success (both The KLF and Orbital had done it well), but Artificial Intelligence was a tipping point. It’s from this moment that the album or the 74-minute CD, and not the fast turnover of white label 12″ singles, became the main concern of many aspiring artists.

This bourgeoisification of electronic music, as Simon Reynolds notes, happened at the same time as the tempo dropped and the focus moved away from the communal experience of the rave or club into the more private surroundings of the home. For Reynolds, this was a sapping of dance music’s power and energy, resulting in “test-card muzak” and which marked a

“full scale retreat from the most radical aspect of rave music…towards more traditional ideas, namely the auteur theory of the solitary genius. Because it was founded on exclusion (musical and social)…it ultimately paved the way for its own dead-end redundancy.”

Reynolds was scathing about the whole AI project in Energy Flash, which raised my hackles when it came out in 1998, but he’s right about the initial compilation: it’s difficult to look at objectively now and see what the fuss was about. It isn’t, on its own merits, an outstanding compilation: Musicology had better – or more representative – work; two tracks by an unsigned band was a gamble (Autechre went on to great things, but “The Egg” and “Crystel” wouldn’t have suggested it); the appearance of Alex Paterson seemed incongruous; and the Richie Hawtin track, though an absolute belter, undermined the “listening music” concept. But the album and its sequels changed my life, and my musical tastes (which amount to the same thing, no?). As a statement of intent, and for what it signified, Artificial Intelligence is one of the most important releases of the last 30 years. Not that I love 1992! would tell you that.

 

*also out in ’93:

  • Spooky: Gargantuan (Guerilla)
  • Orbital: Orbital [Brown album] (Internal)
  • Orbital: Peel Session (Internal)
  • Amorphous Androgynous: Tales of Ephidrena (Virgin)
  • The Future Sound of London: Cascade (Virgin)
  • Underworld: Rez/Cowgirl (Boys’ Own)
  • Reload: A Collection of Short Stories (Infonet)

**the comprehensive sleevenotes by NME’s Sherman provided a history of Hawtin’s Plus 8 record label, and the state of Detroit techno since the late 80s heyday of May, Atkins & Saunderson, along with composition dates for the tracks on the album.

***Trainspotter alert! Vinyl and CD contained different versions of “Pepper”.

 

Sources:

Reynolds, Simon: Energy Flash (Picador, 1998)

Young, Rob: Warp (Labels Unlimited) (BDP, 2005)

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