IDM

IDM has always been a somewhat jarring, offputting name for a genre of music. If you know what it means already then the acronym needs no introduction, if you don’t then get ready to guffaw like you’ve never done before: this seemingly innocuous phrase actually stands for ‘intelligent dance music’. Yes, as oxymorons go it really pushes the boat out, doesn’t it?

And its not just you who’s wincing either. You’d be hard pushed to find an avid fan or causal listener alike who doesn’t cringe a little inside every time they’re reminded of the fact that they’ve taken it upon themselves to listen to a genre of music that, with an apparently straight face, goes around calling itself IDM.

It’s the genre that never existed – triphop’s spiritual brother. But even the masters of eclecticism need a musical refuge; a place to collaborate, lick old wounds, plan the next offensive. Yes, on the face of it a three letter acronym is a pretty amorphous concept to hang your musical ambitions on, but in an industry where a musician without a movement is like a general without an army, you can’t afford to go it alone.

Despite the relative obscurity of the brand, IDM has been around longer than you think. It’s never easy pinpointing the exact beginning of any genre, but the generally referenced milestones you’ll need to know are: Warp’s artificial intelligent vol.1, Afx’s Analogue Bubblebath series & Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Autechre’s Amber LP. On the face of it this seems a pretty disparate selection of records, but its their shared aversion to repetition and loose way with musical structure that prevents them from being just another list of unrelated albums.

This isn’t meant to imply that IDM is all rule book burning and tokenistic subversion. Polyrhythmic experimentation might just be a fancy expression for playing out of time, but in IDM there tends to be a method to the seemingly chaotic madness, meaningful patterns to be found in the random glitches and collapsing waveforms. Yet the ongoing murmurings of ‘pretentious anti-music’ or ‘unlistenable sophistry’ seem inordinately hard to shake off – surprising since IDM has always tethered itself to quite a strict set of musical rules. Even if it does stray from its musical moorings, its strength has always been in knowing when to return back to shore.

It’s this carefuly balanced synergy between spontaneity and conformity which has in many ways made IDM the natural successor to jazz: modern bebop for the socially invisible yet economically prominent home-listener market. By doggedly raising the point “who said electronic music had to be danceable anyway?” to an unlikely mix of past-their-sell-by-date ravers and bookish young fogeys, IDM has done close to the impossible; carved itself a cosy niche in an industry in which scraps of territory are regularly defended & attacked as sweeping plots of land.

The industry is of course a far less certain a place than it was ten years ago, times have changed, things have shifted. Fortunately the IDM community seems to have survived the shakes and tremors of the ‘internet revolution’ relatively bump-free. This wasn’t just a case of catching the wind at the right time. Artists and label owners within the scene were snapping into position and gearing up for the big change while most genres had barely even noticed that the paradigm had already begun to shift beneath them.

Amidst stuffy vinyl-bores & ardent purists attempting to boycott internet downloads and preserve defunct mediums on an ever sliding back-heel, IDM has been a veritable model of progression in comparison, even going as far as to team up with ‘scourge of the music industry’ p2p program Soulseek – releasing music and promoting artists through their main website – if you can’t beat them, join them.

But while IDM has often placed itself at the front of the queue for new technological innovations and has – usually – benefited, the latest helping of technological innovation has arguably placed IDM at the back of the creative line this time round: with easy access to plugins such as dbglitch & livecut, IDM producers can now achieve those Afx glitches and Squarepusher stutters with next to no effort, turning music production into more of a creative indulgence than a creative struggle.

However, in typical early bird fashion, the IDM fraternity have responded to the artistic quandary just in time. Inter-genre cross synthesis is where it’s at now – the Dubstep osmosis of Boxcutter, the country ‘n’ glitch of Nik Jade, the multi-genre pilfery of Luke Vibert. Encouragingly, cross-pollination seems to be working in both directions as well, channeling the spirit of IDM through marshal amps and fender telecasters. A new generation of bands weaned on electronica has emerged, bringing post-rock to an ever growing audience of EDM defectors and baggage free young fans.

Together with the current trend of mixing & matching IDM with its nearest musical cousins, post-rock seems to add further confirmation to IDM’s sustainably potent life force. Just like the infinitely recyclable punk ethos that came before it, IDM has shown that it carries with it an implicit philosophy, an unspoken set of rituals that exists far beyond the music: more of a transferable concept than a musical discipline, it’s not a case of where IDM is going, it’s a case of where its going to turn up next.

Oly Wood keeps a regularly updated blog on the topics of art, science, psychology and society. Read it at culturespam.wordpress.com
Illustration by Laurie Richardson

One Comment

  1. John Simmons says:

    Totally clueless article, as you can see from how many times “IDM” comes up, rather than any facts

    Aphex Twin’s music is called “electronic music”. It defines his career from start to present

    IDM is the American fan culture of Aphex Twin and Warp Records, spread by the IDM list and WATMM.com The Americans don’t get it. Never have.

    Start writing about Aphex Twin in the context of electronic music, and a good quality article will write itself

    IDM is dead, because it was a shit name spread by Americans, and the associated thinking that goes with such a shitty name causes shit music like glitchy I.D.M. Kid 606 to spray out of an old grandma’s arsehole

    The ancient greeks generated electricity from Amber, the name of that Autechre album is a reference to electronics, as in “electronic music”, get it? 😛