A battle emerged in the rave scene in the mid-1990s over the direction it would go. On one side were the sounds of house and trance: cheesy, over-the-top and fun music to get down to. On the other were techno purists who decried the simpleness of the techno at the time. They wanted a return to the electronic sounds of early Detroit techno, a return to electronic music as an art form more than just dance music.
Out of all this, a new type of techno emerged. Popularized by labels like Warp and artists like Aphex Twin, mu-ziq and Autechre, this new sound combined the rhythms of house music with a more cerebral and mathematical tones. Synthesizers, samplers and effects were used to create compositions that weren’t for dancing but had a rhythm that caught one’s ear. Many names were created to define this new sound. Names like electronica, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and the catchy bleep and bass.
Many of these artists haven’t been heard from lately, and bleep and bass has started to fade into history, overtaken by the more popular sounds of trance, jungle and garage. But two new Warp releases, Plaid’s Trainer and Two Lone Swordsmen’s Tiny Reminders, show that electronic music can be smart, artistic and fun all at the same time.
Plaid came out of the ashes of legendary techno group Black Dog. While the electronic sound of Black Dog was darker, with a quasi-mystical style to it, Plaid jettisoned all this heaviness for a more fun and quirky approach. Critically acclaimed albums like Rust Proof Clockwork were described as a bunch of music boxes and wind-up toys let loose to run amok. Trainer is a two-disc collection of Plaid’s early singles and EPs that show the roots for this whimsical approach started almost at the beginning.
The first disc opens with Uneasy Listening, which features fun, big beats similar to Fatboy Slim’s style that is far removed from the seriousness associated with bleep and bass. Slice of Cheese sounds like the perfect song to play at an upscale cocktail party with its jazzy lounge sound. Summit also has more of a jazz feel than a techno one with its snares, organs and xylophones. However, the bleep and bass comes out in other songs like Anything, with its scatter-shot rhythms and simple synth melody, and Perplex, which combines a funky house rhythm with distorted electronic sounds and synth-bass lines.
Disc two keeps up the quirky vibe but also offers some incredibly beautiful songs like Choke and Fly, with its sweeping synth lines and factory machine-sounding rhythms. Small Energies proves that dance music does not have to be simple, with hypnotic, ambient melodies over a pounding kick drum. This is trance music in the purest sense of the term; music to float away to. Bleep and bass’s penchant for odd song names is evident with tracks like Tan Sau, Reishi and Uland, among others. Trainer is great for Plaid fans who want to see how this imaginative group got started, new fans looking for an introduction and shows at which smart doesn’t mean dull.
Two Lone Swordsmen is the project of Andy Weatherall, a legendary DJ in England best known for applying his remix skills to songs like Primal Scream’s Loaded, which helped make group members stars. Weatherall also performed in the acclaimed group Sabres of Paradise before creating Two Lone Swordsmen.
While Plaid’s music may be off-kilter and silly, Two Lone Swordsmen leans more to the electronic side of bleep and bass rather than the dance side on Tiny Reminders. This doesn’t mean the music is boring, though. Instead, Tiny Reminders creates a dark and hypnotic aural landscape that is interesting and unsettling at the same time.
Machine Maid has a dance rhythm but is also filled with computer bleeps and blurps that sound like robot disco. Hidden deep in the mix is a dark and menacing bass line that takes the whole sound and twists it. Neuflex has a driving rhythm with a sense of urgency. Whooshes of sound and scattered bleeps turn it into a soundtrack for someone running down a dark alley away from something. Throughout the whole song is almost a sense of paranoia.
Not every song is as dark. Some are weird rather than unsettling. Brootle has a very symphonic sound over a dance beat. Then Weatherall throws in sounds that are slightly off-key, to mix things up. You Are… sounds like the perfect music for machines to do aerobics to. The Bunker starts off sounding as claustrophobic as its title suggests but then an almost chipper sounding synth melody kicks in.
Tiny Reminders is a great CD for fans of electronica artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre, people who like their music more cerebral and serious. The great thing about this album, and Trainer too, is that Two Lone Swordsmen and Plaid both haven’t forgotten that electronic music is primarily for getting people to move. Both of these artists find ways to create beautiful and interesting music on their albums, but never forget that simple fact.