David Stubbs, former editor of The Wire magazine and a self-confessed Warp fanatic, charts the history of Britain's bravest record label.
Yesterday we premiered our short film about how Mount Kimbie came to perform for the first time ever with a live four piece brass section. Kimbie are the latest of a long lineage of electronic artists signed to Warp Recordings that push the boundaries of sound, technology and performance. David Stubbs, former editor of The Wire magazine and a self-confessed Warp fanatic, charts the history of Britain's bravest record label via eight of its most important releases.
Warp Records could only have originated in Sheffield, with its peculiar history of steely electronic output. Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and Clock DVA had established a tradition of moody synthpop, drawing on futurisms past - from Dada to William Burroughs to Metropolis. When Steve Beckett and the late Rob Mitchell founded the label in 1989, the UK was in the grip of both a mini-recession and the first throes of acid house, with the sounds of A Guy Called Gerald's“ Voodoo Ray” reverberating across the Pennines. The initial Warp sound reflected in extremis the acid/Detroit project to strip dance music down to its austere, metal basics. But as the label grew, it began to add further flesh to its roster. Records by avant-guitar combo Seefeel and Tortoise carried the same iconic sticker as those by hip-hoppers Antipop Consortium.
With its name hinting at perversion, vinyl and the popular sci-fi notion of warp speed, the label's ethos was deviant and limitless. It embraced not just electronic music but video, film (Chris Cunningham and Shane Meadows have worked with the label), graphic design (the Sheffield firm Designer Republic and the definitive artwork of Julian House for example) and even comedy. It straddles the divide between gallery and dancefloor, the supremely functional and the utterly gratuitous. In a world in which the major labels are in danger of shrinking right down to a single, overbearing Omnicorp, Warp has demonstrated what it takes to survive and thrive as an independent label could be in the late 20th/early 21st century. It's at once a highly effective brand and an aesthetic ideal. Brian Eno understood this, which is why, when he returned to music making in the Noughties, he decided to make his home with Warp.
Eventually, the last of the great Northern indies had to move down South. But in its constant, curious process of expansion and self-renewal, it continues to mutate within the increasingly merged worlds of music, art and design, its very newness derived from the idea that the old ways are not done with yet.
Warp's discography is meaty indeed and while not all its artists have enjoyed commercial success, there are precious few follies or embarrassments in its legacy. One could pick out any eight artists and albums from over the years who would creditably reflect its transition from underground dance into ambitious new territories and ambiences– Nightmares On Wax, Black Dog Productions, Squarepusher, Vincent Gallo, Clark, Red Snapper, Harmonic 33, Jamie Lidell, Plaid and Mira Calix to name but ten. Here, however, are eight key releases which reflect the label's past and future shock impact.
Sweet Exorcist: Clonk's Coming (1991)
The first ever Warp album release was by Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk, under one of his many nom de plumes. This represented a symbolic link with the past - CV were one of Sheffield's oldest electronic outfits, operative since 1972, but who had run their course by the 90s. Kirk, however, saw new possibilities in the Detroit techno sound, pared back “to almost nothing”, as he put it to me, and whole new ways of reconfiguring breaks, samples and loops which he explores here, using cheaper new technologies like the Akai S-1000 which cost around £100,000 back in the 80s.
LFO – Frequencies (1991)
Leeds pairing Mark Bell and Gez Varley epitomised the early “bleep and booster” Warp sound: a minimal, Meccano-like affair, all sub-bass and an ominous sense of deep space in lieu of acid house's splashier hedonism. Frequencies was nonetheless a major success, establishing Warp's identity and making it an indisputable force in the emergent world of British Techno. LFO inexplicably melted away in the mid-90s. Like Kraftwerk, it was as if once their foundation work was done, it was only logical to cease production.
Autechre – Inculabula (1993)
For many, with their invented wordplay and drive towards abstraction, Manchester's Autechre (Rob Brown and Sean Booth) are the epitome of IDM (intelligent dance music). This was their first release, a relatively accessible fare, though already their neo-industrial rhythms and inquisitive, broken melodies hinted that for them, the dancefloor was a mere launchpad into the realms of a pure electronic music untainted by the past, as dreamed of by Stockhausen. On future releases, culminating in the extremism of 2003's Draft 7.30, their pieces hang like mobile sculptures, their abstract, metallic visions realised in video by Chris Cunningham among others.
Aphex Twin – Richard D James (1996)
Aphex Twin had already released albums under for Warp under pseudonyms like Polygon Window as well as his Selected Ambient Works, dating back to his teenage years in remotest Cornwall. By the mid-90s he was at the height of his powers and the star of the Warp roster. As much as he was in demand – some tracks on this album, including “4” and “To Cure A Weakling Child” were used in high profile campaigns and commercials – he was drawing on his rich interior life and grasp of diverse genres from ambient to drill&bass to make a music that felt both effortlessly natural and, in its weird symmetries and asymmetries, leery and disquieting.
Boards Of Canada - Music Has The Right To Children (1998)
Though the term “hauntology” would only become bandied years later, Scottish based duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin were already at it in the late 90s, drawing on their childhood exposure to natural history documentaries made by the National Film Board of Canada for inspiration. Wavering, hazy, analogue instrumentals like “An Eagle In Your Mind” resound with anyone who remembers old schools education programmes and their early use of synths; they hint at lost futures interred and semi-dissolved in the sweet murk of the past.
Chris Morris – Blue Jam (2000)
Ours is an era in which alternative comedy has been replaced by spiky gelled but ambitious young upstarts posing on adverts with their DVD with mouths open wide. The elusive yet impactful Chris Morris was always an antidote to that. Blue Jam, a series of stings and sketches whose sickness belies a scrupulously moral and satirical underpinning, employs dark ambient soundtracks which create a mood deliberately antithetical to the “light-hearted”. This was comedy extreme in its ambition, while Warp's own venture into this terrain was itself their boldest act of diversification.
Broadcast And The Focus Group – Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age (2009)
Fronted by the late Trish Keenan, Broadcast were among a number of 90s groups who investigated the discarded possibilities of an elusive, indefinable “perfect pop” from times past. Made with the designer Julian House, who was also responsible for the music of hauntologists The Focus Group, Investigate is perhaps Broadcast's finest achievement, with intimations of Pink Floyd circa Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, as well as the horror film The Innocents and a whole, macabre toybox of colourful, arcane devices.
Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (2013)
Duo Dominic Maker and Kai Kampos, aka Mount Kimbie, represent the healthy quintessence of Warp in 2013, its ethos and anti-ethos, its versatility and mobility across boundaries. Mount Kimbie are identifiable only by their unidentifiability, changing tack from track to track, making electronic music to be stood back from and admired, rather than consumed. On Cold Spring they once more throw a spanner in their own works, melding live instrumentation and vocals from King Krule with their traditional paintbox of electronic strategies. In fact, the introduction of live instrumentation was so exciting, that when the band played with a live brass section, we made a film with them about it. You can watch it below.
Follow David on Twitter @SendVictorious