Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Beginner's Guide to the IDM Genre (Part 2)

Part 1 in this series can be found here.

I have saved Boards of Canada for last out of the big names in IDM because they are not like the others in many ways. However, they are usually lumped into the genre.

They still make experimental electronic music aimed at home listening. But while the aforementioned 3 artists make music that is fast-paced, chaotic, and at times intense, Boards of Canada have a different approach. Their work is much more laid-back and ethereal. Aphex Twin and Autechre create music that at times, doesn’t sound like it’s referencing any era, but Boards of Canada has a definite nostalgic vibe.

Boards of Canada also gained fame a bit later than the others, although they were supposedly releasing music as early as 1987. However, these first few albums were only limited releases and not available to the general public.

They are made up of two brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin. Like the others, they are from the UK, but these two are Scottish.

Their first major release and earliest available official music was the Hi Scores EP in 1995. According to, the Boards of Canada wiki, only around 100 copies were distributed by Boards of Canada privately through their own label. Due to its rarity, the record was at one point going for about $1000 on ebay.

One of the most interesting tracks on the EP is “Basefree”. It’s much faster and more hyperactive than most later Boards of Canada albums.

Another track from Hi Scores, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” was later included on BoC’s first full length.

That full length would end up being the seminal 1998 release, “Music Has the Right to Children.” The album is very influential and is often considered a landmark in modern electronic music.

Is often cited as the best Boards of Canada album and it isn’t a bad choice. In my eyes, it is clearly in the top two, but falls a bit short of their next album.

This was their first release on Warp Records, the famous IDM label that has released music by genre heavyweights such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. There is a clear influence from artists like Aphex and Autechre, as well the ambient master Brian Eno. In fact, MHTRTC doesn’t really do anything specifically new. Rather, it brings previously used techniques together in a way that had not been done before.

Many have described the album as about childhood. Obviously there is the title, but many  track names give off this feeling as well. A couple are references to things you learn as a child such as “Triangles and Rhombuses” and “Roygbiv” named after the acronym that helps children learn the colors of the rainbow.

Furthermore, “Aquarius” contains samples of a child giggling as well as a woman saying numbers. You can listen to it in the video below.

My personal favorite off this LP is one that shows a bit of the trip-hop influence of Boards of Canada, “Telephasic Workshop”. It has some very creative usage of vocal samples.

Another standout is the downtempo track, “An Eagle in Your Mind”.

Their next album would be Geogaddi, dropped in 2002 out of nowhere with little promotion. It is in my humble opinion, their best album  to this day. Some have complained that it doesn’t really break any new ground compared to their previous work, and this may be a valid point.  A Pitchfork review stated, “As similar as this album is to the rest of the band’s catalog, it seems a safe speculation that the concept of ‘reinvention’ is not part of the Boards of Canada M.O.”

However, I view Geogaddi as the perfection of the Boards of Canada sound. It is worth noting that I listened to this one first (as I was quite young at the time), so I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what a follow up to Music Has the Right to Children should sound like.

It’s worth noting the time period in which this was released. The previous year, 2001 had seen the release of multiple albums that featured IDM artists at their creative peak. Aphex Twin’s Druqks is often cited as his best work, and he fell off the face of the earth for a decade a few years later. Autechre’s Confield and Squarepusher’s Go Plastic also came out in 2001 and are considered to be the apex of their classic sound. The same can be said for Geogaddi in my opinion.

As with their previous LP this album is really meant to be experienced as a whole, but there are definitely a few tracks that jump out. One of the best is “1969”, which you can check out below.

The next major release was The Campfire Headphase, released in 2005. This is my least favorite BoC album. It isn’t bad, and a has a distinct new sound when compared with their previous output, which ended up being somewhat divisive among the fanbase. They went with more of an acoustic approach and featured a stronger emphasis on guitars and less of an emphasis on synths.

They released an EP in 2006, Trans Canada Highway and then went silent for 7 years. Many fans thought that Boards of Canada would never release new music again. This is a similar situation to what happened with Aphex Twin, who went from 2001 to 2014 without releasing an LP under that alias.

In 2013, they finally ended their hiatus and bestowed upon fans a new LP, Tomorrow’s Harvest. The album didn’t blow any minds, but it is a solid return to form. It harkens back to Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, but is missing some of the joy and innocence of those releases and instead charts a darker path.

Tomorrow’s Harvest is strongly influenced by film soundtracks of the 1980s, especially horror movies such as those directed by John Carpenter.

It got a mostly positive reception from music critics, but some fans were disappointed that the album wasn’t much of an evolution in their sound. I can’t disagree with this assessment, but just having anything from them after so many years of nothing is a treat.

The single from Tomorrow’s Harvest was the haunting “Reach for the Dead”, which even got a pretty neat music video, directed by Neil Krug. Check it out below.

I will now discuss the next level of IDM artists that have made an impact, but not on as big of a scale as the previous four.

The first I will mention is the London duo Plaid, made up of Andy Turner and Ed Handley. The two were also part of the group The Black Dog (with Ken Downey) from 1993 to 1995.

Plaid released their first LP in 1991, Mbuki Mvuki, which was one of the earliest IDM albums. It has more of a jazz influence than a lot of other music in this genre. “Slice of Cheese” is a track that demonstrates this with its jazzy drums.

Another one that shows their uniqueness is “Scoobs in Columbia” which has vocal samples and a much more upbeat feel than the usual IDM fare.

Both Plaid and The Black Dog have continued to make music to this day. In 2011, Plaid came out with Scintilli, an excellent LP.  The sparse track “35 Summers” had a visually stunning music video released for it.

My favorite from Scintilli is “Sömnl”, which features a creepy bassline.

Their most recent effort is 2014’s Reachy Prints. The track “Tether” was chosen as the single.

Another influential figure in IDM is Luke Vibert. Like Richard D. James, he is from Cornwall. In fact, the two are friends and have done a live performance together.

Vibert has made 22 albums under many aliases, including Luke Vibert,  Wagon Christ, and the drum ‘n bass project Plug.

The best Plug track I have heard is probably “Come on My Skeleton”, which was produced in 1996, but released in 2011 on Back in Time. It features some Indian sounding instruments as well as a humorous vocal sample at the end.

Another excellent one is “Astronaut”, released in 2006. Like “Come on My Skeleton” it is playful and strongly features a silly vocal sample.

One of his more popular tracks under the Luke Vibert name is “I Love Acid”, made in 2003.

His most recent album as Luke Vibert was the 2014 LP Ridmik. One of the best tracks on it is “Acid Jacker”, which is embedded below.

Next we come to Mike Paradinas, yet another IDM heavyweight that hails from the UK and makes music under several different aliases. These include Tusken Raiders, Jake Slazenger, and Kid Spatula.

I really enjoy his work as Tusken Raiders, especially this track “Tatooine Sunset” off the 1995 album Bantha Trax.

His main body of work has been made under the µ-Ziq moniker. The first µ-Ziq album, Tango N’ Vectif came out in 1993 on Rephlex Records, owned by Aphex Twin. They even released an album together in 1996 as Mike and Rich titled Expert Knob Twiddlers. “Mr. Frosty” is a surprisingly catchy tune off that album.

Paradinas would go on to make his own record label Planet Mu, in 1998. It has featured artists  such as Burial, Boxcutter, Venetian Snares, Pinch, and Ceephax.

He has released an album as µ-Ziq as recently as 2013 with Chewed Corners.

Our first IDM artist not from the UK is the German duo Mouse on Mars, made up of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. They began making music in 1993, with their first full length Vulvaland coming out in 1994.

Here’s a pretty solid track from their debut, “Uah”.

Their most recent release was the Spezmodia EP in 2014.  Check out a bizarre video for a track on it called “Cream Theme”.

Finally we come to an oddball even for the world of IDM, Venetian Snares. This is the alias of Canadian electronic musician Aaron Funk. Funk is strongly influenced by the breakcore genre, but also mixes in elements of classical music.

He has been very prolific. According to Wikipedia, he has made 22 albums under the Venetian Snares name alone, and (shocker!) has also released music under various aliases.

I’ve only listened to a small percentage of his vast output, but my favorite so far has been “Fool the Detector” from the 2012 EP of the same name.

Other IDM artists that are more under the radar include Cylob, Richard Devine, Ceephax (Squarepusher’s brother), Christ., Arovane, and Cex. Artists that aren’t necessarily straight up IDM but are sometimes labeled that way such as Plastikman, LFO, and Oneohtrix Point Never are definitely worth checking out.

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