Archive — Electronic music
It’s probably a bit inaccurate to describe Simeon Coxe as a synth pioneer. A pioneer he was, but his musical inventions predated the widespread use of synthesisers. They in fact involved a set-up known as the simeon machine, consisting of “more than a dozen” oscillators.
When he introduced the first oscillator to the rock band he was part of in 1967, all three guitarists quit, leaving just him and the drummer, Dan Taylor. The result was a new band — Silver Apples, a prototypical electronic band, but with a rock sensibility secured by the equally experimental drumming.
They predated Kraftwerk, and their music lacks the polish that developed in electronic music over the subsequent decades. The primitive but complex set-up produced an abrasive and raw, yet repetitive and hypnotic sound.
Perhaps Silver Apples were the first post-rock band. Maybe they were even the first electronic pop music band. Their first two albums even predate 1969’s An Electric Storm by White Noise, which enlisted the help of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson to help realise David Vorhaus’s futuristic electronic vision of pop.
Like White Noise, Silver Apples were met with limited commercial success in their time, only to be discovered as cult favourites decades down the line. The public just had to get used to the idea of electronic music.
I happened to be listening to Trans-Europe Express — the first Kraftwerk album I bought — earlier today.
A few weeks ago, in the early stages of lockdown, Caribou’s album Swim played on shuffle. “This is a recent album,” I thought, “but it reminds me of happier times.
It turns out this album is in fact ten years old today. Time flies, I guess.
It was a time before covid-19. A time before DRS was introduced to Formula 1. A time when (briefly) people agreed with Nick Clegg.
Then I watched the video to Sun, one of the singles from the album. Extraordinarily, it seems made for today’s social distancing.
It features a group of mostly unhappy-looking people stuck in a dark room, dancing at a ceiling lamp as if it’s replacing the sun, and all studiously avoiding touching each other.
Autechre have recently released long-anticipated official recordings from their 2016 and 2018 tours, which I am currently (slowly) working my way through.
But on this day 15 years ago in Glasgow, Autechre performed perhaps their mightiest live set ever. I love this almost as much as any of their albums.
A lot of IDM-heads celebrate Avril 14th for the Aphex Twin tune, but that was yesterday. I enjoyed Kelly Moran’s cover.
— kelly (@kellymoran) April 14, 2020
In 1998, Gescom released MiniDisc, said to be the first ever MiniDisc-only release. (I believe the CD artwork, shown here, is a photo of a Sony bigwig showing it off at an event.)
A mere eight years later, MiniDisc was already obsolete, at least in the home. The music was given a CD release, and that is the version I have.
The music was specifically designed to take advantage of MiniDisc features that weren’t available on CDs. The original release even included a running time that was precise to a hundredth of a second, something not possible with CDs. Also unlike CDs, MiniDiscs could handle gapless shuffle.
The music on Gescom’s MiniDisc consisted of 45 pieces divided over 88 tracks. So, for example, Pricks actually consisted of four different tracks varying in length from 5 seconds to 3:55.
The idea was that the listener could shuffle for a new experience every time. Or, they could create their own loops and experiments by playing tracks in different orders.
Gescom is a collective of experimental electronic musicians, presumed to be centred around Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown, but also said to include up to 30 others. In addition to Booth\Brown, MiniDisc was made by Russell Haswell.
The music itself is ceaselessly experimental. Even in the context of Autechre’s work, this was pretty out there.
But listening today, it’s striking how MiniDisc seems to have laid the groundwork for some of Autechre’s most recent music, particularly on NTS Sessions.
This tune has disturbed me.
Since I heard it, a distressing sentence has floated around in my head:
“This is the best Squarepusher track in 14 years.”
14 years. Count it up.
I think I was 15 years old when I first discovered Squarepusher. To the young Squarepusher fan I was, it’s been almost a lifetime since he has released music like this.
I was a big fan of 2003’s Ultravisitor, where Squarepusher created an otherworldly environment somewhere between stadium prog-rock concert and IDM basement. It was genre-defying — a unique sound. But it felt perfect. It was a brilliant, successful album.
But it seemed to send Squarepusher down a strange rabbit hole, tenuously exploring the boundaries between live and studio-based music with ever-diminishing returns.
Time to change direction then. An email I received from Warp Records in November said:
‘Be Up A Hello’ sees Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) return to using a bewildering array of vintage analogue and digital hardware, the same equipment that first helped him develop his sound in the early ’90s.
By the way, the 14-year-old tune I’m referring to is Planetarium:
It’s Delia Derbyshire Day, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of An Electric Storm by White Noise.
Delia Derbyshire may be best known for her part in the realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune — and her wider work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But her involvement with the White Noise project saw her dabbling with a futuristic vision of pop music.
It was both way ahead of its time, and also resolutely of its time. Synthesisers weren’t yet affordable, so these boundary-pushing sounds were made with complex tape manipulation and other engineering techniques. I think this is among her best work.
RAVE ’TILL YOU CRY
A reworking of Seefeel’s classic 1994 track Spangle, promoting the group’s upcoming tour of North America.
It’s great to have Seefeel back in action again. Their music was a little before my time, but I relished discovering it a few years later. It seems cutting-edge for the period — clearly influenced by shoegaze, but with a fizzing techno sensibility. It’s a combination that wouldn’t have been possible before, and wouldn’t have been thought of after.
Also check out Autechre’s (released in 2003, but presumably made in 1994) remix of the original, which gives it a brooding dark ambient vibe that could pass as a lost track from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume Ⅱ.
Ten years ago today, the first VHS Head EP was released. I remember it seemed to come as a bit of a bolt from the blue. For a while it was my favourite new electronic music.
Video Club is a delightful slice of retro electronic music. Subsequent releases, though relatively scant, have explored a parallel universe consisting entirely of video nasties. VHS Head’s music is constructed from samples taken from VHS cassettes.
As is customary for releases on Skam Records, it includes a braille strip. But a novel addition was the golden Video Club membership card.
Be kind and rewind.
Chanctonbury Rings combines the folk music of Sharron Kraus and retro electronics of the Belbury Poly with spoken word from Justin Hopper. It’s a perhaps unlikely combination.
This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that, despite Justin Hopper’s American accent, the music is unmistakably English. It immediately reminded me of the Seasons (a cultish, unsettling 1969 BBC LP for use by schools’ drama departments, featuring music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop).
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this. I picked it up because I’m a Ghost Box completist. But I found myself in a truly immersive listen. Hauntology at its finest.
Their single Atlas may have got the most attention, but for me it was Rainbow that was the centrepiece of Battles’ extraordinary 2007 album Mirrored. It mixed cartoonish melodies with prog rock hardness.
I first came across Battles on the release of EP C/B EP, a compilation of their early EPs. Hearing SZ2 for the first time was hugely exciting. It felt like exactly the music I was looking for all along, without ever knowing it.
So even though Mirrored was their first album, it already represented a surprising change in direction. The chin-stroking post-rock had been superseded by Pinky and Perky vocals.
It was confusing. But listening to it for a second time, it felt as vital as their early material. In time, more so.
Their live performances were genuinely mind-boggling. They did things with live loops and sampling in ways that no-one else dared.
At the height of their powers, Battles made music in a way no-one else was making it. Watching them live was like watching four people walking a tightrope simultaneously. It could go wrong at any moment, and watching them push themselves and cope with it or recover from going wrong was a marvel.
When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you’d had that idea. And I saw them and thought, “dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”
Have a spare ten minutes? Treat yourself to the slowed down version someone’s uploaded to YouTube.
In retrospect, this tune (from 2005) sounds a little dated. A little bit too heavy on the post-Boards of Canada glitchy hip-hop influence. Bbbbutttt… it’s still pretty good.
I remember listening to this album a lot when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh, taking lunchtime walks round the Meadows. 14 years on I find myself taking the same lunchtime walks, working for the university. Crazy days.
But with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend, it put me in mind of the fact that Sébastien Tellier is in fact responsible for my favourite Eurovision performance, Divine.
France’s 2008 entry was controversial, because Divine was sung in English, which France’s powers-that-be don’t like. So Sébastien Tellier had to re-write part of it in French.
As you can see, that was only the start of the weirdness. The bearded women, the golf cart, the weird locked-off camera angles. And who else would have the audacity to consume helium in the middle of what would probably be the biggest performance of their life?
There was no doubt where my vote was going in 2008. It came 19th. That result was at least better than their previous three entries.
A recent slice of hauntology from the collectable Ghost Box Records. I have to admit this album, The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, has taken a while to grow on me. But my, has it grown.
As much as I love it, some Ghost Box material can get a bit samey. Perhaps it’s inevitable (or intentional?) given that it showcases a type of dark nostalgia; mal-remembered pasts. (Or, in the label’s own words, “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”)
Beautify Junkyards breathes new life into the ghostly universe of hauntology. They are Portuguese, but seemingly take cues from British acid folk music. Unashamedly inspired by an imagined past, but adding adding new dimensions to create something uncannily new. And with a songwriterly quality that isn’t always at the forefront of a Ghost Box project.
It almost takes us full circle to the early material of Broadcast, in many ways the genesis of Ghost Box.
If Sybil´s Dream didn’t do it for you, try Ghost Dance.
A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.
The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:
The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.
Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.
* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:
A great song, really effectively set to footage from Koyaanisqatsi by someone on YouTube.
10 000 Hz Legend is not as well-regarded as Air’s first album, Moon Safari. But I personally prefer it. Moon Safari opened the floodgates to a host of cliched chillout albums by sub-par artists. 10 000 Hz Legend shook it all off, and carved a new path. I think it stands the test of time better as a result.
This one appears to be the official video, but for some reason using a rather weak live version of the song.
A fun and weird new song being released on Soulwax’s record label, Deewee.
The other day we heard Windowlicker by Aphex Twin being played on BBC Radio 6 Music in the morning. On the one hand, this is very excellent. On the other, it has made it less likely that Alex will let me set the radio alarm to wake us up with 6 Music in the new year.
Needless to say, Windowlicker is a masterpiece. At the time it was mind-bendingly futuristic-sounding. 20 years on it still sounds pretty fresh and exciting.
It was also the last thing Aphex Twin released before Drukqs, which might explain why the album got mixed reviews.
When the video for Windowlicker was featured on one of those Channel 4 top 100 programmes, it resulted in this fantastic TV moment, featuring Frank Sidebottom.
I’m really taken with Anno: Four Seasons. It weaves new compositions by Anna Meredith into Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed by the Scottish Ensemble.
This track is the final on the album, finishing Winter — and apt for this moment.
Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Rams, about the designer Dieter Rams, is released digitally today. It’s bound to be good — not least because it features original music by Brian Eno.
But perhaps it would have been more apt to include music from the Jon Brooks album Music for Dieter Rams.
Every sound on this record, from the melodic sounds to the percussion, the atmospheric effects to the bass lines originates from the Braun AB-30 alarm clock.
Photo — 2018-11-23
Without fanfare, Autechre have freely released some files containing sounds and samples used on their 2008 Quaristice tour.
I won’t be able to do anything with the files, but I’m enjoying the YouTube video embedded on the Quietus article above.
White Noise was formed by David Vorhaus, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The latter two were pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the facilities of which were covertly used for a couple of the tracks on their album An Electric Storm.
(For the uninitiated, Delia Derbyshire is best known for the original realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune, among many other revolutionary electronic compositions. Brian Hodgson made many sound effects for Doctor Who, including the sound of the Tardis.)
An Electric Storm was released in 1969. It somehow sounds both mind-bogglingly ahead of its time, while also being distinctly of its time.
White Noise didn’t have a studio, so they had to develop their own makeshift equipment by connecting tape machines together with basic electronics. An Electric Storm was made before Robert Moog developed his modular synthesiser.
Synthesisers were about to democratise the creation of electronic music. But they also made it less of a craft. Painstaking effort and skill were required for the tape manipulation techniques that created the otherworldly sounds pioneered by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and their peers. It became a lost art.
According to the liner notes on the 2007 CD reissue of An Electric Storm that I own, David Vorhaus was originally intent on releasing a single. The head of Island Records told him to make an album instead, giving him the £3,000 he said a hit single would be worth.
This track, The Visitation, took three months to complete alone. When Island Records enquired as to the whereabouts of the album they had paid for, White Noise were forced to complete it overnight by improvising drums over tape loops and other noises. Even that track sounds almost unbelievably ahead of its time.
But upon release, the album sold just 200 copies. The world wasn’t ready for electronic music. But An Electric Storm is the definition of a cult slow burner. And it was highly influential on the more commercially successful electronic musicians of the 1970s and onwards. Not that many of them pressed ahead with the tape manipulation techniques.
Autechre on their epic NTS Sessions, David Lynch, and where code meets music
A good interview with Autechre in which they reveal a little more about their techniques. It explains a fair bit about why their sound is so unique, and why other people can’t (or shouldn’t) emulate it.
It gets a bit hazy in terms of what’s a musical idea and what’s a piece of technology. If you make a sequencer that only makes one type of sequence, and you’ve used it twice, then I guess you’ve used the same musical idea twice…
Our system is great for making Autechre tracks, but I’m not sure if everybody else wants to do that. And if they do, I’m not sure I want them to.
This wonderful reinterpretation of Tilapia by Autechre appeared on Warp20, a box set celebrating the 20th anniversary of Warp Records. (Rather scarily, that occasion was itself almost 10 years ago.)
There were two CDs of Warp artists covering classic Warp tracks, and a lot of them are really good. But John Callaghan’s effort towers above everything else on it.
It probably takes a lot of guts to attempt to cover Autechre, never mind a track as strong as Tilapia. But Phylactery boldly reinvents it, and possibly ends up being even better than the original (although as John Callaghan says in the comments to this YouTube video, both have their place, for different reasons).
In case you’re not aware of the original, here you go:
Photo — 2018-06-07
Thom Yorke and friends at the Usher Hall
The gardens where ideas grow
We tend to think of musicians as architects, who fully control the sound they compose. But here, Austin Kleon outlines how it is in fact more like gardening. Top musicians like Prince, Ralf Hütter and Brian Eno appear to subscribe to this approach.
Brian Eno says:
One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them.
The analogy certainly works well with Brian Eno’s generative music. I remember a radio interview where he described being the opposite of a control freak — a surrender freak. (This is the only reference I can find to it.)
I would like you to tell me how you feel about “see on see”.
Sean Booth replied: “surprised”.
The guide to getting into Autechre
That question when someone is trying to get into a band — “Where should I start?” — is perhaps especially difficult to answer in the case of Autechre. Their music is unique and uncompromising. You almost need to learn to read Autechre, because it is sonic world lives by itself. It is difficult to relate it to anything else.
That situation escalates when the artist has 13 albums over 25 years under their belt, the latest of which is eight hours long.
This article makes a good attempt at introducing Autechre to the uninitiated, by splitting their music into different types: club-friendly, austere, strangely beautiful, melting computer, endurance test.
They say a song is like a fart — if you have to force it out, it’s probably shit. So when a band leaves a gap of 11 years between albums, it means one of two things:
- Option 1 — They have been enduring the worst form of musical constipation, and the album will be shit.
- Option 2 — They have taken their time, let it come to them, and the album will be excellent.
When Portishead’s Third came out, there wasn’t much indication that option 2 would be on the table. In the words of Armando Iannucci, the second album by Portishead had nothing new to say.
Portishead were pioneers of trip-hop, but by 2008 it had become a cliched genre.
But Portishead avoided all those traps with their third album, which is actually probably their best. It conspicuously avoided the now-cheesy trip-hop tropes. It was a new sound, but still unmistakably Portishead.
The album was released 10 years ago today. There is no indication of when their fourth album will arrive. But we are still ahead of schedule by Portishead’s standards.
Boards of Canada ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ turns 20
More on the 20th anniversary of Music Has the Right to Children.
The music imprints ideas in your head, subliminally or through uncanny association: opener “Wildlife Analysis” sounds like an old TV ident left to wander into the woods, the treated, wobbly synth harmonies of “Olson” could’ve come from a half-remembered Stevie Wonder or Gary Wright song heard as background music during some family car ride, and “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” sinks its minimalist, graceful melody in so deep through repetition that the realization you can hear indistinct voices in the background is almost startling. There’s something deeper in the music than just music…
It is 20 years to the day since Boards of Canada released Music Has the Right to Children.
Seminal is a word that is bandied around easily when talking about music. But it may be genuinely applicable in this case. Simon Reynolds in Pitchfork notes how the album seemed to kick-start a transformation in electronic music.
Before this point, electronic music was unashamedly futuristic. Boards of Canada set the template for a nostalgic yet dark genre known as hauntology, since explored further by the Ghost Box label among others.
The album’s cover, featuring a weathered, decades-old family photograph with each person’s facial features redacted, sets the scene. Following a short introductory track, Music Has the Right to Children introduces the listener to the Boards of Canada sound in uncompromising fashion, with An Eagle in Your Mind.
A wistful drone slowly evolves into a darker, brooding melody. Crunchy, syncopated beats and glitching speech samples then take precedence, while narration from a nature documentary subliminally slips beneath. Things get psychedelic, before an unpredictable abstract hip-hop vibe takes over. A childlike melody discordantly tinkles on top, hammering home the sense that something has gone horribly wrong.
This is the opening track from the 2001 album Claro by Brothomstates. That was a special purchase for me, because it was the first IDM album I bought. I already knew I liked this sort of music because I was exploring what I could with whatever clips of tracks I could find online. But Claro was the first full album of this genre that I had heard. This was opening up a new world of sonic possibility to me, and I never looked back.
Wintry weather brings this album to mind. I have vivid memories of walking around my home town of Kirkcaldy in icy weather while listening to Claro on a Discman.
In particular, this opening track, In, epitomises the chilly vibe. The piercing synthesised staccato whistles may as well be icicles falling from the sky.
When thinking of what jam to feature this week, as the Beast from the East descended on the UK, I could make no other choice.
Shuffle mode has just reminded me of the time Richard D James (best known as Aphex Twin), using the pseudonym DJ Smojphace, opened for Björk at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2003.
From the YouTube video description:
For almost 2 hours Richard played nothing but “noise and feedback” from the backstage, only appearing in stage to cheerily wave goodbye in front of a very, very pissed audience.
Listen to the booing! Delightfully funny.
Grammy Winners — Funkstörung
If brutalism was a genre of music, is this what it would sound like?
Everywhen — Massive Attack
A lot of bands I liked wilted somewhat after Radiohead released Kid A. Not Massive Attack. 100th Window may not be their most admired album. But I thought it was one of the few that successfully met the Kid A challenge.
Gone were the trademark trip-hop beats that made them so successful in the 90s. In came a more clinical, experimental electronica sound. It switched some people off, but I think elements of this album are superb. It was an impressive reinvention, but it was also still unmistakably Massive Attack.