#BeatportDecade is a series celebrating the past 10 years of dance music, providing insight into the artists, tracks and labels that drove the evolution of its sound and culture, and interviews with the people who made history.
It’s one of the very loosest of genres – if genre we can call it at all – yet electronica in all its many-splendored forms provokes a very special form of passion in its fans. Right from the halcyon days of WARP Records’ ‘Artificial Intelligence’ compilations that brought together the likes of the Aphex Twin, Richie Hawtin (in his FUSE guise), Autechre, Plaid / The Black Dog and others to jointly define “listening techno” (as opposed to that directed purely at the dance floor), the Interzone between club and living room has been a place for misfits to congregate and experiment.
It’s a wide open space that allowed producers to reach both deep underground and towards mass audiences, create music that is resolutely future-facing yet also understands electronic sound-making’s pre-history. It ventures furthest into the blissed-out explorations of the pleasure principle, but can equally make the most confrontational and mind-frazzling noise. And for every time naysayers write electronica off as the music of over-studious dorks, it’s come back again and again to influence both more streetwise forms and the mainstream. It is Revenge of the Nerds writ large.
Even in those 1990s glory days, there was disagreement about what constituted electronica. For American audiences, it was a very broad term encompassing the arena dance of acts like The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. For Europeans it was more esoteric, interchangeable with “IDM”, featuring the bearded likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher as poster boys. In the new millennium, things became even more confused, and audiences with a penchant for the experimental diverged in all kinds of directions: into post-rock, freak-folk, and the newer, edgier emergent forms like dubstep and grime.
Still, many of the old guard kept on keeping on. Inveterate sonic sculptors like Björk (“Oceania”), Matthew Herbert (“Celebrity”) and Autechre (“Iera”) were still constantly chipping at the boundaries of what electronic sound could do and be, their music full of unpredictable delights and provocations. All of these artists have continued pushing on through the last decade, still as vital as ever.
In the meantime, another area began to open up, a place where electronic artists could occupy the roles of indie and alt-pop bands.
On the one hand there was the millennial electroclash movement: cheeky, poly-sexual and provocative, prone to a lot of dressing up. Though it dissipated as a scene, it created a climate for experimental electro-pop as a living movement, setting the stage for the likes of The Knife (“Silent Shout”), Ratatat (“Loud Pipes”), Planningtorock (“Misogyny Drop Dead”) and Grimes (“Genesis”) to create vividly individualist identities and sounds, for electroclash veteran Peaches (“Talk to Me”) to keep strutting her stuff, and even for someone like Royksopp (“Monument”) to reach the mainstream.
On the other hand, there was a sound that begun to coalesce as the never-very-wide gap between electronica, experimental indie rock and instrumental post-rock closed up. As the Aughts progressed, what you might call “indietronica” moved from being a few lonely souls in bedrooms to a fully-fledged movement. Boards Of Canada (“Dayvan Cowboy”), with their layered mixture of shoegaze, trip-hop and detailed IDM, and the ever dissatisfied, ever-questing Thom Yorke (“Black Swan” and “Deafult” with Atoms For Peace) were godfathers of this sound.
Both directions offered rich seams, and had amazing international reach. From the strung-out Canadian electro-dreamers Junior Boys (“In the Morning”), through the David Lynch atmospheres of Denmark’s Trentemøller (“Moan”), the bizarre art-pop of The Knife’s offshoot Fever Ray in Sweden (“If I Had a Heart”), the sultry New York jams of Nicolas Jaar (“Space is Only Noise”), electronica as a vehicle for songwriting proved globally useful. Meanwhile M83 in France (“Midnight City”), Moderat in Germany (“Bad Kingdom”) and a whole raft of Australian acts led by Presets (“Ghosts”) turned indietronica into something that could reach out to vast raves and arena rock audiences alike.
Whole subgenres rose and fell. “Chillwave” (aka “glo-fi”) was essentially indietronica with a psychedelic haze enveloping it, epitomized by acts like the dreamy Washed Out (“Feel It All Around”). Elsewhere one-offs were finding personal blends of introspection and digital embellishment: acts like Purity Ring, whose hip-hop-bass-indie collision shouldn’t have worked but clearly did (“Ungirthed”), Jon Hopkins who wove song structures into a high-definition take on ‘90s electronica (“Open Eye Signal”), or The xx, translating vulnerable and intimate epics to huge audiences (“Angels”).
The xx also owed a lot of their sound to the wide-open spaces and chiasmic bass of early dubstep, just as plenty of other people began taking inspiration from various soundsystem cultures (dubstep, grime, hip hop, Chicago’s footwork scene and urban undergrounds emphasizing the low-end theories). Long-serving troopers like Bonobo (“Cirrus”) and Massive Attack (“Atlas Air”) continued trip hop’s legacy, while California’s Flying Lotus created a whole new generation of sound that was simultaneously trippier and more hip-hop – in the process spawning an entire worldwide scene around his “Brainfeeder” sound (“GNG BNG”). Rustie (“Hyperthrust”) and Hudson Mohawke (“Fuse”) also turned hip-hop weird, but did so with an intense injection of wide-eyed rave energy.
This “post-dubstep” sound has created a new Interzone, allowing the likes of Ramadanman/Pearson Sound (“Glut”), Lone (“Airglow Fires”) and FaltyDL (“Uncea”) to open up a rhythmically diverse dance-floor groove brimming with all kinds of influences, underpinned by dubstep’s deep throb. Four Tet (“Angel Echoes”) used it as a springboard to rebuild his sound as a vortex that could draw in global (though, mostly British) underground currents; while the similarly IDM veteran Machinedrum (“She Died There”) was equally rejuvenated and re-focused by the complex rhythms of footwork. Others went darker, whether it was master of dub hypnosis Shackleton (“Death is Not Final”), veteran industrialist Kevin Martin who as The Bug drew grime, dancehall and dubstep together into scary new forms (“Poison Dart”), or Death Grips who turned 21st century hip-hop into terrifying decay (“Guillotine”). Even that most confrontational of sounds, grime, is now being melted into contemplative instrumentals by acts like Mr. Mitch (“The Man Waits”).
It’s a dizzying array, but somehow it all connects. 1990s electronica shattered into a thousand forms, but those forms constantly flow around one another, combining, splitting again and re-combining. In 2014, all these threads feed a genre-melting new generation of soultronica stars like James Blake (“CMYK”) and FKA Twigs (“Two Weeks”), or unlikely figures like Dan Snaith (whose Caribou is electronica as all-inclusive pop-house music – “Can’t Do Without You”). Today, The xx’s electronic mastermind, Jamie xx, can come full-circle to music that is blissful home listening but also aimed at the heart of the rave (as “All Under One Roof Raving” makes abundantly clear). Electronica remains a mercurial form – that’s the joy of it. No matter how jaded we get, or how taste making we think we are, electronica’s dazzling flows and unusual twists are still capable of surprise.
Joe Muggs (@joemuggs) is a regular contributor for FACT, The Wire and Mixmag, specializing in electronic music.