Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue
By 1992, barely three years into its existence, and though its singles were crucial to the development of UK dance, Warp Records had already clearly differentiated itself from the crowd of dance 12” labels which had sprung up in the wake of the Acid House explosion. Albums by LFO and Nightmares On Wax hinted at the long-term artist careers it would go on to support, and releases by Forgemasters and Sweet Exorcist, both featuring Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk, showed from the outset that it was a label that could comfortably exist both in the here-and-now of UK rave culture, and in the deeper, wider history of electronic experimentalism.
But it was the two-year run of Artificial Intelligence albums – topped and tailed by two compilations, with albums by B12, FUSE (Richie Hawtin), Autechre, Black Dog, Polygon Window (Richard D James aka Aphex Twin) and Speedy J in between – that cemented the label's position as a keystone in the global post-Techno, post-rave underground. The idea of ‘electronic listening music’, as in Techno untethered from the dancefloor, with melody and texture privileged over driving beats, was not in itself new. The Orb (who featured, as Alex Patterson, on the first AI compilation), The KLF, Aphex Twin, Future Sound Of London and others were already well-established, but Warp’s unerring selection of artists who would exhibit consistency and influence for years to come, and their re-emphasising of the album as artefact (coloured vinyl, themed packaging throughout the series) gave weight to the ‘listening’ concept and presented electronica as something with potential beyond the immediate, contingent demands of club culture. These albums aspired to the longevity, class and influence of Kraftwerk or Pink Floyd LPs – which led some to question whether they were turning their back on the pace and constant evolutionary pressure to innovate of DJ-led 12” culture.
Listening back to the records now, though, it's striking how
much it is still rave music. FUSE's Dimension Intrusion,
Polygon Window's Surfing On Sine Waves and Speedy J's
Ginger are primarily Techno albums, with Dimension
Intrusion's opening track, “FU2”, in particular remaining to this
day one of the most perfect encapsulations of strobe-lit dancefloor
heat committed to vinyl; the less four-to-the-floor sounds of
Autechre, The Black Dog, B12 and Kenny Larkin (whose
Azimuth album, by dint of label, release date and sound
was an Artificial Intelligence release in all but name) all
incorporate the rolling clatter, edgy euphoria and sub-bass of
breakbeat hardcore into their collision of influences; and all have
a rich psychedelic feel which joined the dots between Industrial
influences (Cabaret Voltaire, Chris & Cosey), Acid House and
the emerging German Trance sound. Meanwhile, a loosely-knit set of
artists (Dave Angel, Bandulu, Mu Ziq, Reload, Biosphere, The
Source) and labels (Apollo, Clear, Nu Electronica, 100% Pure,
Rephlex, Skam) were doing much the same: exploring the fringes of
Techno while keeping at least one foot on the dancefloor.
And this reflected the environment from which Artificial Intelligence emerged. Up until at least 1992, rave's protean inclusiveness kept Techno, Hardcore, Trance, Hard House and other sub-genres to some degree overlapping, undifferentiated: clubs like Pure, The Orbit, Club UK, Lost and Eurobeat 2000 emphasised the rave intensity of Detroit/Euro Techno; pure Techno DJs like Colin Dale played at major raves and on pirate radio alongside increasingly breakbeat-dominated Hardcore and proto-Jungle DJs; psychedelic Trance act Eat Static could play at Hardcore haven Rage; while Hardcore DJs and Autechre alike could play at psychedelic clubs like Megadog and Megatripolis.
So, although genre speciation was accelerating even as these albums were being made, and even though they have been seen as representing a separation of non-dancefloor Electronica as a gentrified genre in its own right, the Artificial Intelligence series could equally be seen as an extended attempt to hold on to the rave explosion's all-inclusiveness in opposition to its fragmentation. This stands in direct opposition to the philosophy of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) which followed, and which tended to consider itself above mere dancefloor music. Post-1994, the idea of ‘listening Techno’ would become lost as IDM, Triphop, chill out and mellower strains of drum ‘n’ bass occupied its place in the ecosystem, while the Artificial Intelligence diaspora would follow wildly different routes: Speedy J and Hawtin staying in the mainstream of Techno, Plaid (two thirds of The Black Dog) pursuing melody above all else, Autechre entering a hermetic world of abstraction, Aphex Twin exploring post-Jungle hyper-acceleration along with Squarepusher and Luke Vibert, and only B12 remaining purist adherents to the sound of their Artificial Intelligence album Electro Soma. Warp, too, would necessarily diversify away from its Techno/rave roots as it expanded to become a ‘mainstream independent’ label to stand alongside the likes of 4AD, Beggars Banquet and Mute. But in the nexus of its Artificial Intelligence period, which condensed and preserved past and contemporary influences while itself influencing generations of producers to come, from Photek through to Pinch and Claro Intelecto, it successfully secured its position right at the heart of global electronic music.