This essay is intended to serve as a beginner’s guide to the musical genre known as IDM. A subgenre of electronic music, it started to formulate in the early 1990s. It was referred to as “intelligent” dance music because it was more complex than many of the mainstream dance tracks that were being produced at the time.
IDM tracks tend to be more experimental and less oriented towards getting people to dance. The genre is a bit difficult define; it’s a bit of an “I know it when I hear it” type situation. One major way to delineate it is that it is usually meant for listening at home as opposed to being played by a DJ in a club-like atmosphere.
The name IDM is often eschewed by the actual artists who supposedly make it. A somewhat less common term used is “braindance.” Several musicians associated with the genre actively reject the IDM label.
The most influential and important artist of the genre is clear in my mind: Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James). His influence had been clear in not just IDM, but electronic music in general. James was born in Ireland, but grew up in Cornwall.
James is an example of an artist who doesn’t appreciate the label “intelligent dance music.” He was quoted in 1997 as saying, “I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music.”
The music of Aphex Twin is incredibly varied. He has dabbled in several different genres, including jungle, ambient, acid techno, and even piano pieces. His ambient tracks on albums such as Selected Ambient Works Volume II sound worlds apart from his spastic, fast paced tracks on 2001’s Drukqs.
Aphex Twin’s most well known track is most likely Come To Daddy, off the 1997 EP of the same name. The track is solid and a bit mainstream compared to much of his other work, but a big part of its fame is due to the insane music video by Chris Cunningham. It features freakish imagery including a group of small children all with the grinning face of Aphex Twin.
The track titled, “Windowlicker” is his second most famous, also partly due to a grotesque music video by Cunningham. This time, instead of children, we see the Aphex Twin face on bikini-clad women.
The most essential Aphex Twin album in my opinion is clearly Drukqs. It is often considered to be the peak of his career, although this may be partly because there was not another album released under the Aphex Twin name for 13 years, until 2014’s Syro.
Most of the tracks on this album are frenetic, chaotic ones such as “Omgyjya Switch 7” and “Vordhosbn”.
Those contrast with short interludes of a computer controlled grand piano, with its sound sometimes altered in various ways. These calm tracks are reminiscent of the John Cage prepared piano pieces. Examples of the more mellow ones include “Avril 14th” and “Kladfvgbung Michsk.”
Also crucial is the Selected Ambient Works series, consisting of two albums, SAW 85-82 and SAW Volume II. The first was released in 1992, the second in 1994. Standout tracks from the first include “Ageispolis”, “We are the Music Makers” (which contains a sample of the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and “Xtal”.
Some of my favorites from Volume II are the opener “Cliffs”, and "Weathered Stone".
Additionally, Richard D. James has made music under several different aliases, including AFX, Polygon Window, Caustic Window and Bradley Strider. There’s even an amusing remix of the Pac-Man theme song by him under the name “Power Pill.”
The next level of big names in IDM clearly consists of three names: Autechre, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada.
Like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher is a UK artist. Tom Jenkinson is his given name. His music is similar to Aphex in that it is often chaotic, intense, and full of surprises. However, he clearly has his own sound and differs from Richard D. James in many ways.
Squarepusher’s sound is much more jazz-influenced. He plays bass guitar and this often a big part of his live set. Many of his tracks also exhibit strong drum and bass roots.
He first started releasing music in 1994 and is commonly considered to have been inspired by Aphex Twin’s music, although the inspiration has clearly gone both ways over the years. They even produced a track together in 1998, “Freeman Hardy and Willis Acid.”
The first full length effort from Squarepusher, Feed Me Weird Things, came out in 1996 and is a perfect example of both his jungle and jazz influences.
One of my favorite tracks from that album is the jazzy opener, “Squarepusher Theme.”
Squarepusher followed that up with his second album, 1997’s Hard Normal Daddy. The single taken from it was “Vic Acid”, but the clear standout is the manic, high energy “Fat Controller.” This track is a perfect example of how the album is experimental, yet still funky and enjoyable.
Jenkinson continued to release albums steadily for the next few years. In 1998 he came out with Music is Rotted One Note and Buzz Caner, with Selection Sixteen in 1999.
His most intriguing release from this era is the 2001 album Go Plastic. Picked as the single was the incredibly catchy “My Red Hot Car”, which features vocals with the line, “I want to fuck you with my red hot car.”
Since then, Squarepusher continues to release music every year or two. His most recent full-length came out in 2012, titled Ufabulum. Simply put, even for Squarepusher/IDM standards, the album is absolutely insane. Ufabulum is purely electronic and doesn’t feature any live instruments as his albums often do. It is considered by many to be his strongest effort since Go Plastic and I have to say I agree.
The single from the album, “Dark Steering” was given a trippy music video that showed off a new feature of Squarepusher’s live show, an LED helmet he wears that matches up with a crazy looking screen in the background. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform this album live at the Movement Festival in Detroit, MI. Needless to say, it was one of the coolest and most intense live performances I’ve seen.
My favorite cut off this one is probably, “The Metallurgist.” It is embedded below.
On April 20, 2015 his new album Damogen Furies, will be made available. One track, “Rayc Fire 2”, can currently be downloaded from his official website for free.
Unsurprisingly, the next artist we will discuss is also from the UK. The group known as Autechre consists of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, who were both born in Manchester, England.
They started about the same time as Aphex Twin, with their first two EPs, Cavity Job and Lego Feet being published in 1991.
Their debut LP, 1993’s Incunabula was a unique and influential album in the world of electronic music. The album has a minimal, cold, and clinical feel to it. Yet it still manages to have emotional resonance at times.
It was released by Warp Records, the highly influential label that has also published music by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.
The excellent track “Basscadet” was selected as the single, which makes it the only Autechre single to come from an LP.
My personal favorite from Incunabula is “Bike”, which is embedded here.
Their next full-length album, Amber, was put out in 1994. Like Incunabula, Amber has more of a mainstream sound when compared with later Autechre works. However, it was a bit more ambient and less beat-oriented than their first release.
Amber is a solidly consistent record, but my favorite may be the track “Slip”, which is linked to below.
Autechre dropped their third album Tri Repetae, in 1995, and we begin to see more of the experimental sound that most associate with them. Even their first two albums stretched the limits of what could be considered “dance music” but with Tri Repetae, they left that world entirely.
This album is even more cold and emotionless than their more accessible previous releases. Quiet tracks like “Overand” are definitely not something you would hear at a club.
In 1995, they also released an EP named Anvil Vapre. “Second Bad Vilbel” was chosen off of it to get a music video directed by Chris Cunningham, who directed videos for Aphex Twin as I mentioned earlier.
Their fourth LP, Chiastic Slide debuted in 1997. It continued with the experimental sound of Tri Repetae but didn't necessarily break any new ground comparatively. LP5, the fifth Autechre album, arrived in 1998.
2001 saw the release of Confield, what many consider to be the height of Autechre’s musical output. It was also the apex of their experimentation. Right from the opener “VI Scose Poise”, it’s clear this is a challenging, but rewarding listen.
Next year, Autechre made an EP titled Gantz Graf. The title track was turned into a visually stunning music video by British artist Alex Rutterford. Rutterford has worked with musicians such as Radiohead and Amon Tobin.
The video features some absolutely insane abstract computer generated imagery that is perfectly synchronized to the music. Supposedly, the idea for the video came to the artist during an LSD trip.
After that came Draft 7.30 in 2003 and Untilted in 2005. The latter features one of my favorite Autechre tracks, the epic, frenzied, almost 16-minute (their longest) “Sublimit”.
Quaristice came out in 2008 and in my opinion, saw the beginning of a new sound for Autechre that would carry over in their future releases. It was less intense and chaotic and more minimal in a strange way than earlier albums. There were also a lot of shorter tracks; Quaristice had 20, more than any other Autechre album and some were under three minutes.
“The Plc” is a good example of the quirky, almost laid-back new direction of their music.
2010’s Oversteps was in a similar vein. Gone is the maximalism of some of their tracks from albums such as Confield, and instead many of the songs have an ambient vibe. Oversteps also had 14 tracks, a decent amount for Autechre, with many of them five minutes or shorter.
One of my favorites on Oversteps is the ethereal “see on see”.
Their most recent release was Exai, a 2014 double album that was their best since at least Untilted. The album has seventeen tracks plus a Japanese bonus track and is over two hours in length.
The 12-minute “bladelores” is one of my favorites off Exai.