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Much has been written about the ‘second summer of love’, a wild period of youthful expression enhanced – or dampened, depending on your perspective – by widespread drug use.
This thrilling, unrestricted environment inevitably inspired a whole generation of new artists who wanted to manipulate sound using the various technologies available to them. Sure, desktop computers were pretty primitive (remember the euphoria that greeted Windows 95?) but the new focus on progressive breakbeats and amplified bass made for an addictive sound that swept the globe.
Here are five artists that became popular for manipulating electronic sounds in unique and enthralling ways.
Essential Album: ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ (1992)
I want your soul // I will eat your soul // I want your soul // I will eat your soul // Come to Daddy // Come to Daddy…
Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, was an artist so ahead of his time, his music still sounds futuristic today. When most EDM producers were attempting to redefine electronica as a club-based sound, the Irish producer did the opposite.
Successfully taking elements of EDM and rave culture and contorting them into a techno template built for headphones, his accomplishment was revolutionary.
Despite using synthetic instrumentation, he capably made beautiful tracks that could take the listener on a journey, at least some of the time. Admittedly, both his music and his persona got progressively creepier, but there’s plenty of ambient cuts if you’re not ready for that.
Essential Album: ‘76:14’ (1994)
While I’m on the subject of ambient techno, who’d have thought you could fall asleep to an electronic record that isn’t by Brian Eno? English duo, Global Communication, took Aphex Twin’s approach and ran a mile with it.
Their strong suit was evoking a plethora of emotions via waves of different textures and frequencies – in other words, hypnosis in musical form. Dynamics was the key with so many dips and rises dictating emotion; they were more like compositions than songs.
Given the subsequent rise of progressive house and trance music, it’s surprising that more artists don’t cite Global Communication as a key inspiration. Albums like ‘76:14’ – named after its length if you hadn’t worked that out – were as inventive and offbeat as the sort of thing Kraftwerk were doing over a decade earlier.
Essential Album: ‘Blue Lines’ (1991)
I know that I’ve been mad in love before // And how it could be with you // You really hurt me, baby // Really cut me, baby // How can you have a day without a night?
Everyone tends to remember ‘Mezzanine’ as Massive Attack’s masterpiece, which is understandable because it paved the way for the likes of Radiohead to experiment in the new millennium. But it was their early material that was truly groundbreaking.
While the likes of Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy emerged as rock stars for the EDM scene, Massive Attack were happier producing soulful, introverted music that combined the sounds of old and new. Their ‘trip hop’ beats conveyed the grittiness of the UK’s hip hop scene of the time, whilst exploring abstract and dreamy atmospheres.
More often than not, electronic artists are thrown into one of two camps: cold and restrained or brash and blaring. Massive Attack, brooding yet colourful, fit neither. It’s almost impossible to hear ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and feel nothing.
Essential Album: ‘Orbital [Brown Album]’ (1993)
Never refuse an invitation // Never resist the unfamiliar // Never fail to be polite // And never outstay your welcome…
DJs tend to revel in giving themselves weird names – what’s a Skrillex, let’s be honest? Despite taking their name from a motorway, Orbital must be the mostly appropriately named EDM act of all time.
Their brand of techno was danceable, sure, matching typical 4/4 rhythms with punchy melodies and vocal samples. Yet, it was the way they crafted these combinations that was most powerful, with different parts often layered to create an ethereal, other-worldly experience for the listener.
It’s a shame that the duo broke up in 2014 because they were also, by several accounts, one of the most incredible acts to see live.
Regardless, there’s an unpredictable improvisational feel to their records that you won’t hear anywhere else.
Essential Album: ‘Leftism’ (1995)
And when there’s no more to give // The window will shine in the light // Take some for yourself // It’s all good for something…
House music was already the most popular club genre by the mid-90s, but acts like Leftfield were key in transforming it into a multifaceted style admired by critics. Integrating dub and tribal influences into their relentless house beats, their music was certified head-nodders.
Their debut album ‘Leftism’ has aged particularly well for several reasons: it was experimental (see Open Up) but still catchy and accessible, and it brought together disparate electronic genres and unified them as one club-friendly package.
It’s easy to forget that electronica wasn’t always intended as dance music; the sense of power and invigoration that Leftfield’s music inspires, exemplifies why it now is.
The great thing about electronic music is the sheer diversity: you could place these artists on a scale from thoughtful and cerebral to dance-until-you-drop, and yet all five are powerful and emotional in their own way.
I know what you’re thinking, though – there must be more! The world of electronica is such that you’ll always find something new through features, remixes and live variations, so explore away.
If you want to add your own thoughts, leave them in the comments below.