In the music business, racism does so much racism every day that you’d think it would be hard to pick a winner of Doing Big Racism. But you have found it—the most racist term in popular music. “Intelligent dance music” was a phrase invented to apply to early Nineties acts like Aphex Twin and the people who came immediately in his wake. Who Richard D. James was inspired by, though, were the acid house creators of Detroit and the junglists of London: Black and Latinx folks who worked with a small clutch of white people. The world of IDM is the inverse. The bias is still so pervasive that I had to listen to three hours of IDM playlists on YouTube and Spotify before I hit a single artist of color. Was Dillinja not intelligent enough? Was Juan Atkins just a little dense? We know that nobody believed this, not even at the time of this term’s creation. 

Somebody needs to recast IDM right away, maybe as “Frankstep” or “Orange Wave.” To their credit, almost all of the artists under the IDM umbrella mock the name, all for their own reasons. It’s important to remember, before we move on, that anything “unusual” done in the programming and filtering and structuring categories was done in these putatively unintelligent dance genres before any of these clowns rolled around. But a lot of these clowns are pretty great. So what is this stuff?

It really is “Aphex Twin and people who sound like him,” in short. What was happening, at the concrete musical level, was almost entirely the product of MIDI software; meaning that musicians were using bits of triggering software to make one machine manipulate the sounds on another, that latter machine usually a sampler or keyboard and the former a PC, usually not a Mac in the early UK scene. The piano roll interface of MIDI allowed the artist to make drums do things no human could do. That’s the first stylistic mark of IDM; the cascading, hyperspeed rhythms and gunfire pacing. What happened over time is fascinating, because the hardware changed significantly. Nowadays, anybody continuing in roughly the IDM vein is manipulating digital audio directly to get results reached in an entirely different way thirty years ago. If artists do still use MIDI, it could be convenience or a retro fixation—or maybe it’s for a musical reason after all. Tools do have their own character, and it’s hard to get the feeling of a Source Direct record without a cheap PC manipulating an Akai sampler. IDM music began as complexity rendered by primitive tools, machines that had never been designed for the uses they were put to.

The heart of the work comes from machines being pushed beyond their limits, and that was what Aphex Twin did from day one. Those trills that almost sound like a bird cooing? Maybe MIDI hammering, maybe a file chopped into lemon zest, who knows. But that sense of activity in “Flim” or “Peek 82454201” or “Nannou” is what gives this genre some actual personality of its own, not just negative affective affinity. 

If we needed to go with a dumb genre name, “lifestep” would be closer to what goes on here. The first wave of fellas in here, all of them English, were taking the gear in front of them and wringing out a whole bag of glittering activity, much more visceral than intellectual. This is the formal manifestation of care and effort and enthusiasm, and that gave it some lasting power. Autechre braided everything back into itself, Squarepusher juiced up the already exuberant side of jazz fusion, Plaid turbocharged the idea of the pastoral, Prefuse 73 shredded hip-hop to make a hot salve, and Boards of Canada put their childhood science films into a taffy stretcher for everyone to see.

If you happen upon a really good IDM playlist, or god forbid make one, you get the impression of a sort of battery-operated lighthouse illuminating the world of late 20th century machines. The way Seefeel chopped up and recontextualized guitar rock was infinitely helpful, as it made it clear that the machine lovers were not necessarily against what had come before, but they absolutely wanted to complicate it and make the future stand on the same spot in the present as the past. And then hit play.

If you want to know how completely amorphous and nonsensical the term is, look at this entry from the fine folks at Masterclass. The bit that isn’t cribbed from the Wikipedia entry alleges that the “parent genre” of IDM is EDM, which is a funny thing to say since I did not hear the term EDM until well into the 21st century. I don’t just mean to clown on internet scammers like Masterclass, but to point out that this is a music that barely exists as a genre. It’s more like a cloud tag or a keyword that will sort of get you somewhere. It really just refers to early Warp acts, and that’s it. 

After that, you’ve got artists like Prefuse 73 and Richard Devine and Sweet Trip who made great music in a related vein, but really do have their own thing. It seems most helpful to think of IDM as a little bit like metal, which, without a modifier, is almost useless, in that it apparently covers Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Deftones, three bands with almost no commonalities. IDM is more like a style sticker, or maybe a produce category like “Meyer lemons.” If you like lemons, sure, great, but you won’t know where they were grown or if they’re really Meyer lemons and it also won’t matter at all if it tastes good enough. You are not, unless you are insane, going to eat the lemon and then go back to the store to yell because you suspect it might not have been a real Meyer lemon.

Things get really odd if you chase IDM trails on Spotify or YouTube. You will find a range of things, much of which does not align with anything I’ve said here. It might mean nothing at all in 2022, or it’s like rockabilly or ska, a repertory genre where you simply reproduce the good stuff that’s been done. You should absolutely take the artists in this bucket seriously but you should be very skeptical of this genre name. To that end, we will end with a new synthetic definition.

Let’s start with what Discogs says: “IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, is a style in electronic music emerging in the early 90’s and characterized by unusual, weird, distorted sounds, and drum lines consisting of very short bleeps and glitches. Originally applied to musicians like Future Sound Of London, Orbital, Aphex Twin, Black Dog and B12,  the term is now extended to a multitude of artists…” Rate Your Music says: “Intelligent Dance Music, most commonly known as IDM, is a term invented in the early 1990s to describe the sound of a number of electronic musicians who sought to develop dance music beyond the clubs and more into the realm of home listening…Attempts have been made to alter the name of the genre and shake off the negative connotations, with Aphex Twin’s “braindance” description of his own music and Warp’s “electronic listening music” proving somewhat popular.” So there is a sort of soft consensus here. The rhythms were divorced from dancefloor functionality—they got chopped up, softened, and sprinkled amongst other elements. The textures went sad, maybe even sadboi. This posits IDM as a precursor to the lo-fi study beats movement. What happened to these rhythms is more interesting through the lens of gender than race, ultimately. The stay-at-home cyclotron of IDM was able to feminize beats, or at least open them up to femme energy. One of the artists tagged most often as IDM is Bjork, who stopped singing with traditional bands the moment she left the Sugarcubes. IDM is the precursor to both hyper-pop and the bedroom chill culture. People wanted to use rhythm and synth sounds but not for the dancefloor, and this began a whole family of music that has no real precedent in rock and roll or any other kind of bandstand or proscenium stage music, DJing included. IDM was ultimately the beginning of a whole new home recording revolution. Homewave? Homecore? Is that what it really is? Music that began with lots of people moving in public to one person at home, not moving.

Sort​\​Lave cover

If there is really a thing called IDM, its purest artist is Richard Devine, whose debt to Aphex Twin and Autechre (especially) he wears openly. Without them, he might not exist, certainly not in this form. The song titles here are Autechre-ish, as are the echoey and crunchy sounds. The programming? Bananas. The signal path? Baroque. The modules? Immaculate. What makes Devine a real keeper is his energy and élan—this music fizzes, even at its knotted bunching points. This 2018 album is one of his strongest because he has kept all the fanboy enthusiasm of Lipswitch and smoothed all of it out a bit. Devine’s work is a love letter to the machines and I think his best stuff is still ahead.

Interstate cover

Talk about hidden classics—Interstate is like the Basic Channel rusty dusty dub thing opened up and cracked apart. The rhythms here have the texture and tone of electronic music but Robert Henke’s programming and playing is so fluid it absolutely sounds like a full house of humans whacking away in an aluminum duplex. Combine that with the lovely pads and sweeps and you get a genuinely dimensional kind of pulse and pace. Easily the equal to many of the more celebrated albums of the time, and probably better.

Bricolage cover

This Brazilian fella uses electronic and acoustic elements to imagine one of the strongest virtual bands I’ve ever heard. It sounds, largely, like a guy in downtown Manhattan in the mid-Nineties doing rap records and jazz gigs in between making super fried jungle beats in his loft. Aging beautifully, this one. “Bitter & Twisted” still sounds to me like Black Sheep set free as a drum n bass act. Virtuosic and trippy and also weirdly confident. A sleeper.

Temple Of Transparent Balls cover

The prime period of original Black Dog is absolutely delightful stuff. They haven’t gone deep into digital audio yet so a big chunk of what they’re doing is still made by chaining keyboards and drum machines together with MIDI, giving everything a sort of natural limit. Things don’t get too twitchy or that far from a disco pulse. You could program most of this in a dancefloor set and have it work—the inspiration of acid house is still in sight here and it’s a good thing.

Chiastic Slide cover

If you know me (lol you don’t) you know that Autechre is kinda the A-Z for me. They’re my guys my fellas my ride-or-dies my ideal my waifu my goals my crush. Also, they can be insanely annoying. I am insane but not entirely. This is not one of the annoying albums that I love—this one I play for guests, like Sign and Amber and Tri Repetae. (NTS Live? That’s for Saturdays with the boys.) They’re my Grateful Dead but they also have People Music and Chiastic Slide is up there. Their immersion in electronics means that they can literally slide in ways nobody else can. Their music simply disintegrates and reforms like David Cronenberg’s Fly every few seconds, if they want. They blur the audio here but also pack the whole thing with beats and melodies, like their parents are in town. Chiastic Slide is Autechre’s hottest nightclub and it has everything: heraldic robot horns, contact mics in the pocket of Sasquatch, heavy-breathing cheese grater, big Tinkertoy reverb, android surf wax, bees.

Lunatic Harness cover

Mike Paradinas is one of the few to get the royal nod from Richard D. James himself, becoming a full collaborator with him on several occasions. Lunatic Harness is where Paradinas really spins out his variation on the Aphex formula of hectic programming and explosive sample manipulation. This music leans a little goofier than the average Aphex Twin and has its own sense of syncopation that feels a touch more humanoid than the James style. (I think maybe Mike actually likes to dance?) One the best deconstructions of drum n bass from the time, in that it’s entirely serious as an engagement and completely unhinged in its execution.

Tri Repetae cover

This is when we knew it was really on. Gloriously driven by the kick drum swing of hip-hop while also beginning to dissolve in their new acid computer bath, Tri Repetae is the first full album where Sean and Rob let their hearts and brains fully merge with the gear. This moves, it slashes, it sings, it inches along in that sinister Autechre way. The boys are not in town, exactly. More accurate to say that Autechre world is officially open as of this album. Drop in and loop this for a day and see if your engine doesn’t smell a little cleaner.

U.F.Orb cover

Luscious! That’s how I’ve always felt about this one. “Towers of Dub” and “Blue Room” on one album? That’s worth eleventy million dollars to me. The Orb tied together weird UK rave culture with Jamaican dub (and went on to work with Lee Scratch Perry) on this album. The whole nexus of physical vs. mental really sits inside this music. It works as a cooldown soundtrack but also as a spur to an active kind of meditation. A stone classic, quiet but fully electrified.

Richard D. James Album cover

This is dead center of the IDM Bermuda Triangle, a genre that doesn’t exist but was called into service by music that definitely does. Was this the single most influential electronic album of the Nineties? Probably not because there is no such thing but man, if there was, it might be this. One of the levels here is rhythm, where Aphex keeps a generally simple frame, but then fills his plastic grid box with tiny, fractured dust, letting a simple downbeat be preceded by a ramping trill of atomized drum hits. It’s juicy synthetic chaos, the human and inhuman blended. (I mean, most of this is in 4/4 time—what James added to his beats was detail, not necessarily syncopation. Much of the programming here is too fast to read as concretely rhythmic information.) The other layer is the glassy legato beauty, the compositional flair of a Romantic. “Fingerbib”? National anthem of animated cats you study with and manga lawyers! A wobbly and benevolent world of fuzzy metal and sentient glass.

TimeTourist cover

These guys did straight future shock electronic cool guy shit, like pure Matrix and Blade Runner stuff. No goofing around with hybrids here, this is android jazz and blinking beats. It doesn’t sound anything like the century to come and I love it. 

Tides cover

Uwe Zahn is an absolute dark horse in this world and Tides is a real keeper. I have no idea how this record was made but it sounds like a sort of odd live band recorded and then recreated blind on a machine. It’s got some space in it—a rare thing in IDM—and a real stately pace. Harpsichords, guitars, bells, sound effects, electric piano, voice samples, and drum machines combine to make something that could slide easily into trip hop or ambient, and maybe a few other genres. As relaxed as this world gets, but carefully and thoughtfully edited into shape. A gem from 2000. It’s even sort of a guitar album, in some ways.

Rest Proof Clockwork cover

It’s always seemed important to Plaid that they set themselves outside any idea of “electronica” and make whatever occurs to them. They work with instrumentalists, singers, DJs—whoever helps them push out the boat. One way to understand Plaid is that they place a high premium on a very human kind of swing, and their vision of machine music rarely wanders into the pressure drill territory of Aphex Twin and Autechre. They feel more in the tradition of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and various strains of mellow hip-hop. Their vision is one of the sunniest in IDM, and their albums make a case for IDM that has compositional coherence that isn’t dystopic or heavy.

Autoditacker cover

What Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma have over all of their peers is a sense of both play and fantastic attention to tone. They called a song “Tamagnocchi,” which you can imagine a few others doing but I’m not sure anyone else could make electronic music sound like Japanese pasta companions. Does cute seem like a putdown for music? It shouldn’t, as this is really cute. It sounds good when somebody says it on the street, and it should here. This is uplifting, glowing stuff.

BCD cover

Basic Channel was a label, and a duo, and an entire way of looking at music. Initially very much not visible, Mortiz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus made the music behind the various aliases here. It stayed this way for years, actually. What they achieved was one of the biggest flips in electronic music history. They made techno and dub the same thing, and made electronic sounds feel completely organic. Not the only and not the first, but these records remade the frame and the game, both. They continued to work under the alias Rhythm & Sound, and ultimately their own given names. These are absolute classics unlike anything before or after, and the language to describe them will likely never change: muffled, aquatic, dirty, degraded, whooshy, sandwormy.

Geogaddi cover

“1969 in the sunshine,” from “1969,” is the perfect Boards of Canada lyric because they weren’t there and probably you weren’t either. I was two, and they were born in 1970 and 1971, so we were all kinda there, culturally. (Did you know they’re brothers? They are.) I’m not calling bullshit—I’m giving them credit. None of this happened and this is exactly how it felt. That’s how memory works, and also how Boards of Canada albums work. All of their ViewMaster clouds and scratched color negatives are born of the analog age, swiped right through the digital and then suspended above us in some realm that is neither here nor there. There was no hip-hop in 1969 but there was funk but neither one of them makes a BOC track move. Their rhythm is a beast that’s a bit funk played by machines, with the quietest hi-hats in town, if there hi-hats at all. The is melancholy as a physical act, a kind of queasy addiction to reviewing the same two year period over and over, both therapeutically and neurotically.

94diskont. cover

What exactly is this? Markus Popp, who is Oval, called it “file management,” and who am I to argue? At the heart of this is the sound of CDs skipping but there is an awful lot of manipulation in play, which could have been done in several different ways (almost thirty years ago now). This is too unpredictable to be ambient (as some call it) and too easy and consistent to be really song-like. It’s digital reflections with no figure, a long rainbow refraction with no lens. It feels like “ribbon storage” to me, but I don’t even know what the ribbon is made of.

...I Care Because You Do cover

James was having his Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy stage at the same time as his Pink Moon phase. His harshed out rhythm stick was getting charged up while his laudanum lullabies were popping off. “Start As You Mean To Go On” is kind of a perfect Goodbye 1994 tune, the last of a previous style, ragged out. “Alberto Balsam” goes out to the future lo-fi study pets. “Next Heap With” is a previous of the orchestral sweep of “Girl/Boy Song.” “The Waxen Pith” is a silver cruller of prayer and wobbles.