If there is any definitively conclusive argument to be made at this late date as to the artistic validity of the music video format, this collection of Warp Records’ distinctive and memorable output in that beleaguered format could ably serve as Exhibit Number One for the defense. Although it must be admitted that there is a great deal of dross throughout, there are enough moments of pure cinematic genius scattered herein to make even the most grudging cynic allow for the admission of the music video clip into the canon of respectable film.
Warp Records stands at a perpetually abstruse angle to the mainstream music business. Although their roster contains artists in almost every conceivable genre, from hip-hop to psychedelic rock to strange singer-songwriters, they are defined by the IDM (intelligent dance music, never my favorite acronym but we are stuck with it) that composes the bulk of their impressive roster. Artists such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher have built distinctive careers out of the defiant act of pushing the boundaries of tolerable noise in pop music. Some might bristle at the description of something as recondite as Autechre’s “Gantz Graf” as pop music, but it is meant in the broadest sense possible: these IDM artists use the tools of the electronic musician in order to take the familiar sounds of house and techno into totally unfamiliar and sometimes hostile realms. They stretch sound as far as it can possibly go without breaking it altogether. IDM is the furthest step to the left of mainstream pop without crossing the boundaries into totally improvised “New” music. You could definitely make an argument that a great deal of IDM actually does cross that line, but I tend to think that because it is presented in the context of pop music, it still retains enough vestigial traces of pop in its DNA to mark it as a separate beast from the output of your average ECM artist.
The existence of this collection is evidence of one such vestigial connection to the music’s ancient disco and house ancestry. These music videos are nothing like MTV’s average witless promotional clips. In most cases they don’t even feature the artist in question, and even those that do feature the subject artist usually feature them doing something very weird. I can’t even tell you with any degree of certainty why most of these clips were even made: with the exception of a handful of spectacular (for Warp) crossover successes such as Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy” and “On”, I have never seen any of these videos on television. Since the ignominious demise of MTV’s Amp, there is no home—that I am aware of—for electronic music videos on any of the major video networks.
As such, most of these videos are obviously very cheap, and many of them are also boring. However, a surprising amount of them are genuinely interesting, and a few are as stunning as any videos in the genre’s short and ugly history. The majority of filmmakers here seem to have reacted to the idea of making IDM music videos with the same enthusiasm that the IDM artists themselves used to make the music, stretching the boundaries of digital media as far as they could go without breaking the TV into a thousand tiny pieces.
The disc’s crown jewels are the quartet of videos produced by video maestro Chris Cunningham. The aforementioned “Come To Daddy” is rightly recognized as one of the most interesting and well-shot videos ever made. It’s also spooky as hell, and its executed with enough flair that you don’t even begrudge the obvious debt to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Cunningham followed this up with “Windowlicker”, which takes the nightmarish but very weird world of “Come To Daddy” and amps the weird up to the level of self-consciously silly, in the process lampooning the excesses of late-century rap videos. It certainly took a demented mind to envision a giddy Richard D. James tap-dancing through the streets of south-central LA with a bevy of grossly malformed bathing beauties . . . demented, but genius.
Cunningham also delivers a stunning animated haiku for Autechre’s “Second Bad Vilbel”, as well as the award-winning clip for Squarepusher’s “Come On My Selector”. This last video is arguably the best on the disc, featuring a meticulously choreographed and excellently photographed homage to the genre of Japanese anime. It manages to be spooky, funny, and affecting at the same time, and it is as close to perfect a synthesis of music and video as has yet been produced.
Autechre’s “Gantz Graf”, directed by Alex Rutterford, is another favorite, a totally abstract computer-generated visual feast. It’s hard to describe, save perhaps to say that Autechre’s proudly synthetic white-noise is set against the backdrop of a pulsing mechanical object drifting in undefined neutral space. It is a mesmerizing piece of pure video, shorn of the restrictions of conventional narrative and set adrift in the realms of disassociated imagery.
LFO’s “Freak”, directed by Daniel Levi, is another stunner, featuring a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls dancing to frighteningly alien choreography. There are other, lesser, delights scattered throughout, such as Aphex Twin’s melancholy “On”, Chris Clark’s frightening “Gob Coitus” and Luke Vibert’s humorous “I Love Acid”. There are some interesting ideas in many of the other videos, but most of them collapse beneath the daunting twin weights of a high-concept and a low budget.
There’s also a bonus CD included, featuring a “megamix” of tracks plucked from throughout Warp’s history, compiled by Buddy Peace and Zilla. It’s an interesting CD, and definitely fun for longtime Warp aficionados such as myself, but hardly worth the price of admission on its own.
This is the definitive record of Warp Records’ singular achievements in the field of video production, even if it falls quite short of providing anything near a complete view of the label itself. For one thing, signature artists such as Boards of Canada and the Two Lone Swordsmen are entirely unrepresented, as neither group have ever had reason to film a music video. Marginal artists such as Jimi Tenor and Jamie Lidell are represented with far more vigor than their meager careers would imply, simply because they happened to film two (very cheap) music videos apiece.
While this collection is unfortunately inconsistent, the good videos are sufficiently good enough that the poor ones are buoyed by their mere presence. I doubt you will want to watch, say, Antipop Consortium’s “Ghostlawns” more than once, but I guarantee that you will want to watch “Gantz Graf” many, many times before you die.