This month the seminal Warp Records label is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There is a heap of festivities planned, and I am expectantly waiting for the very awesome looking Warp20 box set to arrive in the next week or so.
They have a lot to celebrate. The label has personified the cutting-edge of electronic music for most of its existence. Few labels can claim to have been so seminal, and remain so strong for so long.
I discovered Warp at the beginning of this decade. I had already been developing a taste for experimental and electronic music, but before getting internet access I had no way to explore it. I had heard bits and bobs about Warp, but my first real exposure was when I saw the band Broadcast on one of those late-night music programmes on Channel 4. I remember very little about it, but I think the song that mesmerised me so much must have been ‘Illumination’. Here is a video of the band performing it live in 2005.
Once we got the internet, I was able to explore further. When I visited the Warp Records website, ‘Eros’ by Tortoise was playing on its front page. It was one of the most amazing and unique things I had ever heard.
The mixture of soaring sci-fi electronic sounds, intricate multi-layered drumming and funky guitar playing transformed my expectations of what music could achieve. Compared to the standardised indie-rock I had previously been listening to, hearing something as distinctive as this was an utter revelation.
I knew I had to continue on the path of discovery. Given that Tortoise shared the same label as Broadcast, there could be no starting point other than Warp. I was also quickly. attracted by Warp’s striking visual identity, which was largely shaped by The Designers Republic.
As I investigated the artists of Warp on the label’s website, I was surprised and delighted to discover a huge variety of new (to me) and exciting music. It is no surprise that today many of my favourite albums are ones released by Warp in 2001, when I was 14 and discovering all this amazing, diverse music.
But the Warp I discovered was already very different to the Warp that began in 1989. Back then, the promise of label founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell was for the Sheffield-based Warp to be a “recognised, credible, uncompromising dance label”. Inevitably though, a label cannot survive 20 years without evolving.
Between 1992 and 1994 the label released the seminal series of albums including the eponymous compilation Artificial Intelligence. The idea behind the series was to showcase “electronic listening music” which designed more for home listening than the dancefloor, or more for your head than your body. This series contained music by musicians that were later to become huge: Richard D James (best known as Aphex Twin), Autechre, Black Dog Productions (containing the members of Plaid), Alex Paterson (from The Orb), Richie Hawtin among others.
The cover of Artificial Intelligence depicts a robot reclining in an armchair with copies of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn lying on the floor — an indication of Warp’s ambitions. The label became the most famous outlet of what is known as Intelligent Dance Music or IDM.
The IDM moniker makes everyone cringe. Few of the best IDM artists think of themselves as IDM, and the artists that describe themselves as IDM are usually not worth listening to. Musically, it might be fair to describe it as dance music’s equivalent of progressive rock. It was the necessary next step, but is denigrated by those who think it is too pretentious and impossible to enjoy.
Like prog rock, IDM had a limited shelf-life and it peaked around the turn of the decade. Electronic music as a whole is not the money-maker it once was. So Warp have further diversified. In the words of Steve Beckett, “probably the first sacrilegious move” was to sign Seefeel in the mid-1990s. They are a more conventional band with guitars and drums, associated with shoegaze as much as techno.
More non-techno artists followed, including the jazzy trip-hop act Red Snapper, 1960s-influenced Broadcast and, er, the downright odd Jimi Tenor (I never really got that one). There was also an increased focus on hip-hop with the likes of Prefuse 73 and the Antipop Consortium. Later, there was a distinctive move towards more conventional rock. This was most notable, controversial and successful with the chart-friendly indie-rock band Maxïmo Park.
Today Warp has artists as diverse as its history suggests. It probably remains best-known for electronic music leaders such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada and Squarepusher. But on the same roster you can find electro-rock shape-shifters Battles, folk-rock bands like Grizzly Bear, the increasingly soul-oriented Jamie Liddell, hip-hopper Prefuse 73, indie band Maxïmo Park and even the satirist Chris Morris. Oh, and in addition to music they also now make films.
This diversity has been good and bad. Undoubtedly Warp lost its way a bit a few years ago as it struggled to find its feet after electronic music waned in popularity. But even after twenty years, Warp remains a path-finding label that anyone interested in experimental pop music should keep an eye on.
When I discovered Warp in 2001, the range of styles on offer was already massive. But each artist was notable for being interesting and innovative. It was easy to view the Warp label as a mark of quality, no matter what the genre was.
Long may it continue. There is absolutely no question that Warp Records transformed my outlook on music more than anything else. I am looking forward to the next 20 years of innovative music.
Over the next week or so I will write about 20 of the most interesting Warp albums from its 20 year history.