It's about the pleasure principle. The more melodic, complex side of mid-90s electronica is often thought of as nerdy or awkward, but this is a massive mischaracterisation.
We're talking stuff that was, as often as not for home listening, as much as for the dancefloor – but which hadn't yet severed its connections to rave and Detroit techno. Also the ones shot through with hedonistic imperative, just as much as any euphoric house or drum 'n' bass banger.
The early works of globally huge acts like Aphex Twin and Richie Hawtin fit into this world, alongside the likes of Global Communication, Future Sound Of London, The Orb, Luke Slater's 7th Plain and hundreds more.
Perhaps it's the fact that it got described as “intelligent techno” that caused the problem. This was seeded in the jokey name of WARP Records' pivotal 1993-4 Artificial Intelligence series of albums, and would later evolve into “IDM” (“intelligent dance music”), which certainly was an area which celebrated finicky rhythms, avant-garde sound design and often over-seriousness.
The “braindance” tag coined by Aphex Twin's Rephlex label probably didn't help, although this too was tongue-in-cheek and alluded far more at the music's psychedelic qualities. However, combined with the serious specs, oblique humour and computer obsessions of some of the musicians involved, perhaps it's understandable that it was presented in the media as music you needed a master's degree to appreciate.
A sense of hippy silliness didn't help either. All too often, the main places this music got played – outside of people's living rooms – were the backrooms of the more out-there clubs in places like London or San Francisco.
Places where people in face paint lay back on beanbags as psychedelic projections of fractals and dolphins played on the walls, and “brain machines” and patchouli perfumes were proffered. Delightfully relaxing, but as far as outsiders were concerned, not exactly edgy or hip – and even some of the people who enjoyed it at the time regard their memories with a little embarrassment.
Looking To The Past
In the world of electronic music, it's a given that styles cycle around endlessly, and this kind of electronica is no exception. With a little distance, the more off-putting aspects can be written off as irrelevant, or even embraced, and the music itself – which very often was lush, sensuous and freed from the rigid restraints of more dance floor-oriented styles – can be appreciated for what it is.
It maybe helps that WARP Records has just celebrated its 30th anniversary and attention is on its bigger acts. Plaid, the WARP duo who refined the melodic electronica template through that 30 years, has just delivered one of their best albums yet in Polymers.
Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) is imminently releasing Be Up A Hello, his 18th album and one which is built on his uniquely manic version for the 90s electronica's interlocking melodies and complex rhythms.
Other veterans are still very much in the mix too. Kirk DeGiorgio is known for making techno, soul/jazz and Latin beats – but his As One guise for making rich, embracing home listening electronic music is one of his best loved projects.
His resurrection of As One for last year's Communion (and a reissue of his the much beloved 1994 Reflections album) has been one of the most welcome comebacks in dance music. Paul Woolford, on the other hand, has less of a history in this style – he's known for house, techno, and latterly in his Special Request guise for making retro rave packed with breakbeats and fierce energy.
But during a remarkable run of no less than four albums in 2019, he tapped into a rich vein of electronica tracks that could easily have appeared in 1994. The Bedroom Tapes and Offworld albums in particular, positively bubbled with elegant synth melodies and quirkily funky rhythm patterns.
Eddie Symons, meanwhile, might not have been going since the early 90s – his first release as Bovaflux being in 2002 – but he's hugely on form right now. His Aux4419 album is one of the past year's best, hitting deep emotional spots even as it flaunts its technical virtuosity.
A New Sound
What's crucial though, and what makes the upwelling of vintage synth melodies way more than mere nostalgic revivalism, is that there's a whole new generation retooling them and recontextualising them, often for the clubs.
And where it was fair to suggest the original electronica generation, like so much in dance music, was a boys' club – and very British to boot – things are very different now. Witness Australia's Roza Terenzi who joins the dots back through the 90s to the influence of Kraftwerk and 80s electro.
Or Illinoian Eris Drew, whose uptempo rave breaks are underpinned by tapestries of sound that recall the most bohemian of 90s chillout spaces. Or the Israeli Mor Elian (shown in the lead picture), who fits a more minimalist take on electronica into her spacious and brooding percussion jams.
These are musicians who look back with envy on a time when the rules were still as-yet unwritten. As it is, they don't see electronica's complexities as awkward or embarrassing, but as unfinished business.
Cover Image: Mor Elian
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs