The Nineties was a curious decade – motley. Trajectories that had been building since the 40’s had seemingly collapsed in the morass of neon excess otherwise known as the Eighties. Music had become either sold-out or sombre – Gothic hangovers recast Rock as Grunge, all gloom and heroin and slovenly riffs; Alternative pop took to dark, delicious corners. Hip-Hop, one of the few genres at the time to wield fresh libido, was hacking away into corridors of the past to re-construct its future. Its culture of sampling riffs and snippets from pockets of time was to have far-reaching influence on popular music to come. And a new species of sound was attaining sentience…
As early as the 1900’s, composers of the perversely creative bent had been entertaining purely synthetic music. But these individuals were few and far between, and were closer to mad scientists than to the received notions of musicians/composers.
Since the 1920’s, Edgard Varese had been incorporating industrial percussion and electronic sounds into his work – his attempt to mirror the shrieking mess of everyday technology coughing and stammering the urban soundtrack of 20th century life.
The Forties saw John Cage injecting electronic components, chaos and chance into his compositions, leaving segments for Fate to compose; while Egyptian Halim El-Dabh assembled the first musical piece to utilize manipulated tape recordings and found sounds, in 1944. Their experiments didn’t exactly become all the rave (ahem), not yet anyway.
These sputters of proto Electronica were conducted mostly in isolation, until Robert Moog’s range of reasonably user-friendly synthesizers found a foothold in Sixties Funk, Rock and Fusion. But purely electronic music remained simmering in shadow until the Seventies, when German alternative outfits like Kraftwerk began parodying the mechanistic nature of the Industrial world by composing stark, repetitive electronic dance music.
This led to the emergence of the Dance/Electronic music scenes of the late Eighties and early Nineties – the birth of Doef Doef.
And lo the newly hip gathered in illicit phosphorescence, chomping shiny new pills, and jerking in symmetric abandon to the hyper locomotion of Techno and Rave. It was the new Tribalism – shiny happy people holding hands in abandoned buildings.
Still underground, or at least niche-bound, Electronica would soon spill over into the streets, clubs and bedrooms of the masses. And, eventually, into the most popular and mundane of media.
The fractured mosaic of the Nineties lent itself to disruption – consistency tapered off, clarity was unsustainable, stability could not last. And so it was with music.
Genres were ripe for collapse, or explosion. Electronica, starting out with the robust symmetries of Techno and Rave, swiftly bifurcated into Jungle, Acid House and Drum ’n Bass. From this synthetic fertiliser four artists/groups emerged who would tap into the uncompromising originality and experimentalism of fast forward-thinkers Stockhausen, Cage and Varese.
The result of the Nineties output of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Oval and Squarepusher would definitively alter the map-work, and the very definitions, of music and musicality – introducing whole new planes and vistas of compositional possibility.
Autechre and Aphex Twin were sometimes confused with one another, and often compared. Aphex Twin’s work was more derangedly freewheeling – with eerie undercurrents and super-kinetic armies of percussion (and ominously distorted kiddies’ voices) now elevating, now toppling beautiful melodies compared to the exotic hyper-precision of Autechre’s alien orchestras – where the percussive and melodic elements seemed different parts of the same sonic organism: squelches and shudders and whirs and thumps and coos and swishes mere aspects of the same hypothetical ‘instrument’.
Recalls local electro-acoustic composer Brendon Bussy: “Around the time I discovered MP3’s – I got a bunch from a friend (dN, now Captain Asthma). Included were the first 6 tracks of Autechre’s EP7. The oddness of the opening track (Untitled) left a big impression. How can I describe it now? Rippling, liquid – a shattered and eroded beat… Driven by an underlying walking rhythm, but one leg slightly shorter than the other? Just what I was looking for. Something towards a beat structure, but veering, just past. A satisfying near miss.”
Squarepusher was influenced by Aphex Twin’s self-exponentiating percussion, his rhythmic audacity, but buoyed said in fat Drum ’n Bass, and in warm, analogue Funk.
Warrick Sony: “I was given a copy of Squarepusher’s Feed Me Weird Things CD in 1996 by Jay Savage of Sony Music. It blew me away. The album changed my sense of what music was… and what it was to become… and I felt a huge desire to be part of what music was going to become. I like the fact that the guy could play his instrument very well – he was like Jaco Pastorius playing Drum ’n Bass. Also opened my mind to programming drums. Still one of the best drum programmed albums ever.”
These three artists, along with a slew of other digital creatives, were all part of the Warp Records roster, and had massive, game-changing impacts on the likes of Bjork, Radiohead and Hip-Hop outfits like OutKast, and later the entirety of R ’n B and Pop.
A more obscure entity, dubbed Oval, was operating at the same time as the above three, but seemed to be in a parallel reality where the latter’s output had already been analysed and quietly toyed with for a decade. Oval also threw a fistful of cosmic skunk into the face of petty human notions like creativity and authorship – Its first, obtusely brilliant releases were ostensibly the produce of computer programmes, designed by its human co-conspirators.
Said human trio (later streamlined to central member Markus Popp) would mutilate CDs, squiggling on them with markers or scratching them, then feed the remnant ‘tracks’ into said programmes for ‘re-interpretation’. The resulting, balletic twitch-works led to ‘Glitch’ Electronica.
Says chord sculptor and sometime Electro ambient Givan Lotz: “Thee first thing I heard from Oval was the 24 minute ‘Do while,’ off the 94Discont album. Even though I heard it 10 years after the fact (2004), I was struck with its immediate beautiful otherness, like listening to a scratched compact disc with your fingers – somehow simultaneously on both the fast-forward and reverse buttons.”
By the end of the decade, the century and millennium, the disparate quartet of pioneers were all but overwhelmed by the tumultuous heave of their wide-ranging influence: Aphex Twin resigned from official commercial releases in 2001 with the trixy innocence of swan song Druqks, while Squarepusher’s output became unpredictable in style and quality around the same time, and Oval all but disappeared.
As of 2013 things are swell for the four horsemen of the future. Aphex Twin has been releasing a steady assault of EPs and pseudonym-signed albums over the last six or so years, keeping fans hungry and guessing; Squarepusher’s been expanding his canvass with reckless talent, unleashing albums that bravely re-imagine live music. Autechre – the most consistent of the four – have merely carried on mining rich seams of strange beauty; their last release, 2010’s Oversteps, considered to be among their best works, and their new one out as you read this.
Oval, typically, reinvented itself with its first release in a decade – occlusive digita swopped for actual samples of brightly squirming guitar and percussion, manipulated into signature, glorious otherness.
Ah! Bright, shimmering horizons!