By Mike Bruno
The ambitious intent of the Detroit kids who invented techno back in the late 1980s was to use computers to begin an endless evolution of dance music–or, as Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton put it in their 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, to answer the question: “If house is just disco played by microchips, what kind of noise would these machines make on their own?”
But techno (which has since branched into half a zillion subgenres that all fall under the vague umbrella of “electronica” or simply “electronic dance music”) has reached a critical point over the past few years. Its inherent creativity has, to a large extent, been pushed aside by subpar copycat records designed to cash in on the recent surge in popularity for music that was once considered too avant-garde, too foreign, or just too gay for mainstream America.
Of course, in pop music every action inspires a flurry of reactions. The subgenre known as IDM, or intelligent dance music, which takes its name from Warp Records’ legendary 1992 collection, Artificial Intelligence, has moved techno not just off the dance floor but out of club life completely. Instead of just coming up with slight variations that would add adjectives like “deep” or “progressive” or “ambient” to the genres that already filled the record crates of big-name DJs, IDM producers like Autechre and Aphex Twin punched a hole in the wall of the chill-out room and wandered off into unknown territory.
Recently, the public’s attention has been focused on a couple of American punks known as Datach’i and Kid-606. Their anarchistic brand of IDM is a mixture of the industrial drum ‘n’ bass hybrid known as drill ‘n’ bass, the glitch manipulation associated with artists like Oval, and the punishing roar of Alec Empire. These spastic collages of computer-generated noise (given context by obnoxious titles like “Luke Vibert Can Kiss My Indie-Punk Whiteboy Ass,” in Kid-606’s case) further Aphex Twin’s career-long quest to perfect sonic irritation, challenging the listener to find musicality and rhythm in what seems like a random mess. Kid-606 once said the creative force behind his music is a “musical multiple personality disorder or creative short attention span.”
That techno has already reached its punk phase might seem to bode ill for it: most experimental music, in its quest to isolate the mainstream, eventually reaches an end point. Hardcore punk, free jazz, and ambient techno have all reached the wall; musicians like Datach’i and Kid-606 slam up against it and call it art. But the music of Jega, aka British producer Dylan Nathan, shows that the alternative to formulaic dance-floor techno doesn’t necessarily have to be all-out chaos.
Jega’s career started in 1995, when close friend and fellow techno experimentalist Mike Paradinas (aka µ-Ziq) encouraged him to buy some gear and try his hand at recording some of the computer experiments he had been conducting. Jega’s first recordings were stark, melodic IDM tracks released on a series of EPs in the mid-90s on the Autechre-affiliated label Skam. He diversified a bit for his first LP, 1998’s Spectrum, (initially released on Skam and distributed in the U.S. via Matador a year later), which sounds like a futuristic children’s cartoon sound track, foraging through everything from drill ‘n’ bass to Japanese pop to big-band jazz. The mix of sweeping sound washes, cute synth-pop jingles, abrasive rhythms, and mechanical sound effects harks back to both Aphex Twin’s early ambient works and the breakbeat noise workouts of his later records.
Jega’s new record, Geometry, is far less cute and bubbly than its predecessor–in fact, the mood is downright sinister. In past interviews Jega has said that Spectrum was in part an attempt to thwart the first impression he’d made with the darker tracks released earlier on Skam, and some of the criticism leveled at Spectrum targeted its blatant absurdity. Geometry, though in some ways a throwback to his earlier work, represents a step toward being taken more seriously as an electronic composer.
Which is not to say it’s the greatest IDM album ever recorded. For one thing, it hits kind of a lull about halfway through, with a long string of tedious, moody ambient tracks. But the motivation behind the disc is clearly to create something less fleeting than noise for art’s sake. Jega carefully arranges breakbeats, ricocheting tones, and bursts of industrial-sounding clatter and hum to flatter, fight, and frame sweet-sinister melodies reminiscent of post-rock and post-techno outfits like Tortoise, Boards of Canada, and To Rococo Rot. As the title implies, the album sounds like a meditation on spatial relationships, its hard grid of rhythms arranged to give the listener a clear view of the incubation of a melody–and though that’s happened an infinite number of times already, like birth and death, it can still be a miraculous process to observe.