[17 December 2009]
It probably doesn’t need to be restated at this point that it’s wildly unusual for an electronic music label to live to see 20 years of age, but in discussing the history of Warp Records, it’s rarely mentioned that Warp ceased being exclusively an electronic label quite some time ago. The Möbius strip adorning the patented Designers Republic artwork of the individually available discs associated with the objet d’art 20th anniversary box set is probably appropriate. Throughout its history, Warp has always been a singularity, an anomalous fleck of stardust from an alien galaxy that somehow found its way into Earth’s atmosphere—one whose viral pores infected nearly all those who came in contact with it.
Yet, one has to wonder exactly how Forgemasters and Grizzly Bear, Black Dog Productions and Tyondai Braxton, or Seefeel and Nice Nice are flip sides of each other. For its tenth anniversary, Warp released three double-disc sets, one of stellar house and techno music that preceded Warp’s arrival as a major force operating out of a Sheffield record shop, one of the label’s consentiently definitive early-era dancefloor singles, and one of cuts from the label’s entire back catalogue remixed by artists both within (Autechre, Plaid, Luke Vibert) and outside, but not completely foreign to, the official Warp aesthetic (Bogdan Raczynski, Labradford, Oval).
Missing from this biography was the Artificial Intelligence bridge, which connected Warp’s nascent bleep club bangers from their eventual arrival as a home listening station. Unbeknownst to the label at the time, this separation of the discotheque from the living room flared what soon turned into something of a cultural war amidst fans of electronic music. Warp’s reasoning behind this change appeared to be economical as much as aesthetic. Dance labels frankly didn’t survive very long. The constant flux of trends made adaptation to the demands of continually emergent anarcho-capitalist markets difficult. So label honchos Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell (who passed away in 2001) decided to focus their activities on a music that transcended the zeitgeist, carefully placing a spliff-toking CGI corpus in an easy chair zonked out on the sounds of Warp, Kraftwerk, and Pink Floyd on the cover of the first disc in the Artificial Intelligence series. Here was a music that was not about “now”. Rather, here was something you could listen to, say, 20 years down the road without hesitation. Music a priori of tradition (well, kinda) and composer of its own mythologies.
The artists on Warp were not part of any movement larger than the scope of the label. As anonymous as they often were, their sounds had gigantic personalities, which could be treated with reverence and lauded for aplomb vanguardism. Critics could open their ears to Warp music because it was album-oriented and didn’t require the whole new set of rules of appreciation and comprehension that dance required. Before long, indie trad rock fans began to savor the music as an outlier. Those who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to “techno” could tolerate Warp because its artists favored “virtuosity” and “depth” over “repetition” and genre compliance. The smugness in this askance derision of other musics, no doubt perpetuated by the “intelligent” tag of IDM, invented a historicity proclaiming dance music fans to be conservative, but Warp-flavored IDM was often just as guilty of obedience to expectation, perpetuating and co-opting trends as often as it created them.
The thing is, Warp and dance were parallax views of the same frontier of adventurous futurism. Warp never denied this connection, picking up elements from the dance music continuum and rendering them undanceably obtuse or oversaturating them with ego. To some, jungle may have only become acceptable once “geniuses” like Tom Jenkins got a hold of it, but this elitism never reflected poorly on the music itself, which was almost always worth defending with grand superlatives and hagiographical hyperbole.
It was canon-forming for me. The bulk of disc one of the Chosen CDs could have been playing at any given time in my college dorm room between 2000 and 2004. The booklet for this set is filled with deeply personal anecdotal shout-outs originally posted on the web site set up to vote on the selections to appear on it. The contest itself makes this disc a kind of “best of”, and it is inventoried as tracks one through ten according to their placement on the final tally.
Boards of Canada’s blissfully assertive rainbow memory play “Roygbiv”, Squarepusher’s acrobatic anamorphic dicing of an elegant UKG sex jam into “My Red Hot Car”, and the speak-and-spell-fueled propulsion of LFO’s hypnotic calling card “LFO (Leeds Warehouse Mix)” are so ingrained into this reviewer’s consciousness that it’s hard to imagine listening to any of them for the first time, though I certainly envy those who will. Each tune popped up at a different stage of discovery, offering new avenues of exploration. To hear them all lumped together could potentially be overwhelming for a new listener, or perhaps it may fallaciously fool the listener into thinking Chosen is the only Warp script he or she needs.
Chances are, though, few will be coming at anything released from this anniversary series as an outsider. Warp is rarely invitational. For all its widespread appeal, it still remains esoteric and hermetic to remote eyes. Few of the tracks on Chosen disc one are indicative of the music one might hear were he or she to randomly select an album by the given artist. Mostly, this means that the songs are more commercial, though Autechre’s “Gantz Graf” is an eccentric choice for fans to have landed upon. Its dissonance in this case is mainly tactile sandpaper, rather than formulary grotesquerie. Plaid’s anodyne guitar strings and X-Files Theremin-esque tooting are actually way in the left field of the sound they generally strive for, though it’s far from an attractive sound. And let’s not even mention Aphex Twin.
Chosen disc two seeks to rectify much of the concision and aggregation of disc one with a personal mix by label head Steve Beckett. Beckett dips deeper into the catalogue, but still focuses mostly on the label’s superstars (Grizzly Bear, Broadcast, Jamie Lidell) and legends (Seefeel, Xeper/Black Dog Productions, Mike Ink). Nuggets from out-of-print 12 inches and forgotten releases abound in the back catalogue, but may never see the light of day in album format, since they’re all available at Bleep.com. Still, one hopes that another anniversary may find guidance through these heaps from the likes of an insider like Beckett.
Nevertheless, Beckett does whip up an exemplary, if not fully cohesive, compilation, emphasizing range and quality in its numbers. While the pieces don’t share a common frame, none of their spots in the sonic gallery is ever under suspicion. Xeper’s “Carceres Ex Novum”, off of Black Dog Productions’ Bytes, is pitch-perfect ambient. “I’m For Real”, by Nightmares on Wax, showcases Warp’s contribution to dance music with a staccato eighth-note march and soul samples captured from an undead past, stored in the ecto-containment unit until needed to produce E chills. Seefeel’s “Spangle”, from their Starethrough EP, recorded halfway between their transition from narcotic dream pop to glacial hinterland-textured dub, carries the same overtone throughout its seven minutes, but still serves as one of the most radiating flourishes in their oeuvre.
Oddly enough, Recreated, two discs of exclusively Warp-on-Warp covers, perhaps best represents the state of the label in 2009. Whereas a decade ago remixes were the de rigueur supposition for a label celebration, even amidst the participating post-rock guests, Warp’s cast in 2009 has enough bands from the “indie” game that “covers” seemed a more appropriate term for the homages this go-around.
Most of the parties involved on the covers discs took this distinction between cover and remix very seriously, particularly on the second disc, where artists normally comfortable working with electronic instruments (Mark Pritchard, Leila, Mira Calix, Pivot, Jamie Lidell, Bibio) embark on their conquests with a more organic approach. The second disc, which is more consistent, is also the better disc. There’s a recondite chemistry joining the electives of the second disc that operates similar to that abstruse Möbius band on the cover.
Beckett apparently gave the artists free reign over the catalogue, and many of them arrived at similar destinations. There are two covers apiece of works by Boards of Canada, LFO, Grizzly Bear, Aphex Twin, and, surprisingly enough, the Drexciya-associated project Elecktroids (who released one album and one EP on Warp). With such a broad archive of material, it’s a shame there wasn’t a broader diversity of tunes being reanimated, but with such territory to cover, one can never expect anything but disappointment in an attempt to look at it all in one sitting.
The translating authors are mostly second-tier Warpies, which is a risky move. Though it brings exposure to these lesser-heard artists, it places them in a context where they’re likely desacralizing classic texts. Born Ruffians’s combined version of Aphex Twin’s “Milkman/To Cure a Weakling Child” is unlikely to win the band any new fans (particularly since Fridge’s Adem did a much more rousing combo-version with “Girl/Boy Song”); its lame incessant hollers of “the milkman’s wife’s tits!” ring with puerile glee over noodly riffage and a brain-dead beat. The charm of the Dice Man’s original lied in the austere politeness of his request, not the naughtiness of the specific words used.
That the Born Ruffians adaptation starts off Recreated doesn’t help matters. It’s even more curious that the song should be followed by the spotty Jimi Tenor and the much-maligned Maximo Park, two of the label’s more ponderous signs. Both individual tracks are actually quite adequate, if not spectacular, additions (damnation with faint praise, I’m well aware). Maximo Park gives Vincent Gallo a motorik stomp and Tenor changes the… ahem… tenor of the Elecktroids original by adding bargain basement Casios and falsettoing what were once vocoder beckons. Tenor’s own “Paint the Stars”, meanwhile, one of the man’s most gorgeous cuts, is re-abstracted into an inferior chipmunk ‘n’ rubato appropriation that never finds a firm enough footing to extract the original’s kaleidoscopic spiritual jazz uplift.
More successful and similar in angle is Rustie’s Elecktroids cover, “Midnight Drive”. Known for his dubstep, Rustie wonkifies a catawampus synth until it scuttles in an ambient carriage. The original vocal sample that drove the Elecktroids version gets minced flying through an industrial fan. Seefeel’s “Acrobat” also flattens its source material into a grainy suite of nacreous yet calculous surfaces. It’s something of a shock to this longtime Seefeel fan that their first song in roughly 13 years is a Maximo Park cover, but there’s only the faintest ghost of the song within here. If this and the recent School of Seven Bells remix by Seefeel is any indication that new work by the band is forthcoming, it is a promising sign indeed of a full-on comeback.
Mark Pritchard (Global Communication, Jedi Knights, Harmonic 313) abandons his usually plugged-in methodology for a fantastic string section rebirth of Balil’s “3/4 Heart”. Mira Calix enlists Oliver Coates to do the same for Boards of Canada’s Branch Davidian narrative “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”, but it comes off a bit too sluggish, understated, and under-etherealized. Better is Bibio, who is also on fire this year. He, like Gravenhurst on their Broadcast redux “I Found the F”, imbues his mix with a woodland folk and field recordings aesthetic, which is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Stephen Wilkinson, but it works nevertheless.
Tim Exile’s low-end warbles bring Jamie Lidell’s “A Little Bit More” back to the glitchy and far superior noir R&B of Super Collider and early solo singles like “Daddy’s Car” (also on Chosen), but the tracks fails to move with the same vim and comes off more like Jay Haze’s ill-fated attempts at Neo-Geo-Soul. In addition, Lidell himself fails to funk up Grizzly Bear, preferring fidelity over interpolation, which would have been way more interesting than the conservative recreation found on Recreated.
Recreated remains a curiosity, then, and not essential listening. Drastic contrasts are rarely stressed in the same way they were emphasized on the remixes of Warp 10+3. It would have been great to hear, say Beans doing Sabres of Paradise or Gang Gang Dance investigating Sweet Exorcist, but this still would have brought us no closer to understanding Warp in 2009. Perhaps that’s why Beckett felt the need to put out the expansive box set (which also includes an Osymyso mix CD, a disc of Unheard material, the 10-inch Infinite locked grooves record, a book of historical album art, and sleeker packaging design). Warp can no longer be confined to a single statement or movement. It has outgrown the anxiety of its own influence, even if that means that it may cease to be as influential as it once was. Who knows, though? Lightning has certainly stricken several times in the same spot over Sheffield before. And even 20 more years at their current pace will always be worth listening, if only to find out how large the Möbius strip might inflate.