By the mid 1990s, electronic beat music had become a global phenomenon based on a pretty basic set of rules, the most constant being the four-on-the-floor stomp codified through New York post-disco, Detroit techno and Chicago house music.

It was awesome if you were in the mood for letting loose on the dance floor, but all that repetitive thumping could get pretty relentless after awhile. In the UK, a bunch of bedroom producers started questioning that template, building tracks that strayed from or messed with the 4/4 grid, and in the process inspiring kindred scenes elsewhere in Europe, the US and Japan.

Like free jazz artists in the 1960s who ignored standard meter in favor of looseness and bouts of chaos, artists including Aphex Twin, u-Ziq, Mouse on Mars, Susumu Yokota, Kid606 and Phoenecia expressed mastery of their constantly evolving instrument—the electronic workstation—by flexing complex skills no less dexterous than expert drummers, violinists or guitarists.

Unlike the four-sided, rectangular sonic skyscrapers of house and techno, this new generation went all Frank Gehry on electronic dance music, meticulously engineering constructs seemingly produced via algebraic equations.

“Aspiring techno genre-benders take note: Architecture school appears to be a surefire training ground for imaginative beatmaking,” wrote Colin Helms in a 1999 piece in CMJ New Music Monthly on the sounds coming out of Warp, whose 1992 compilation Artificial Intelligence unwittingly helped name the nascent movement: “Intelligent Dance Music,” or IDM.

Artificial Intelligence

As with many notable compilations, regardless of genre, Artificial Intelligence connected musical dots through a small group of likeminded creators, and in the process advanced the musical lives of a dozen-odd individuals (or bands). In AI’s case, that included an intercontinental line-up of Richard D. James (as The Dice Man), Autechre, Canadian producer Richie Hawtin a.k.a. Plastikman (as UP!), I.A.O. (which morphed into The Black Dog and eventually, Plaid) and Alex Paterson, founding member of The Orb.

Given the recent advances in artificial intelligence, the title and the IDM genre born of it was a portent, even if describing any genre as “smarter” than others is a fool’s game. The legions who find IDM reductive often use the terms braindance, glitch or abstract electronica to capture the movement’s essence.

Sean Booth, one half of Autechre, called the “intelligent’' adjective “a joke really,” adding that “almost all the artists on that first AI compilation are just like us, they were regular kids, they’re not intelligent people particularly. Richard [Aphex Twin], Richie Hawtin, Alex Paterson, they’re not known for being intellectually powerful, they’re just fucking good musicians.” (For more on this, read Smaël Bouaici’s Panorama on Warp Records.)

Needless to say, “Richard [Aphex Twin]” was intelligent enough to compose, or at least green-light, a forward-thinking manifesto when he founded Rephlex in 1991 with Grant Wilson-Claridge.

Aphex Twin - Didgeridoo EP

“Firstly, we hope to promote ‘Innovation in the dynamics of Acid’—a much loved and misunderstood genre of house music forgotten by some and indeed new to others, especially in Britain,” Wilson-Claridge wrote in that 1991 statement-of-intent. “We aim to demonstrate to the rest of the world that British dance music CAN be entirely original,” he continued, before concluding with a noble aim: “Highlighting the increasingly popular style of electronic listening music” [emphasis ours].

Over the next decade Rephlex Records released classic tracks by James (as Aphex Twin, Caustic Window, AFX), Mike Paradinas, Luke Vibert, and others.

Because any conversation about IDM tends to begin and end with Richard D. James, and we’ve already done deep-dives on James and Warp, we’ll acknowledge his influence here and continue on our way. That said, if you’re looking for lesser known Aphex Twin work, we’d suggest exploring the mid-’90s EPs, including “On,” “Girl/Boy,” “Donkey Rhubarb,” “Come to Daddy” and “Ventolin.” When originally released, often a few months apart, each upended the world of electronic dance music in subtle and not so subtle ways. In retrospect, they were spreading seeds that sprouted creative meadows wherever they landed.

James was part of a trio of young experimental beat-heads who forged a mini-scene that eventually went global. Located in Cornwall, which is about a five-hour drive from London, James, Mike Paradinas (µ-Ziq, Frost Jockey, Jake Slazenger) and Luke Vibert (Plug, Wagon Christ) absorbed the ethos of the underground club scene exploding in cities across the UK and channeled it into production and party promotion on a smaller scale. As they started releasing records, the so-called Cornish Crew became unlikely inspirations.

Paradinas has gone on to set the conversation by amplifying hundreds of artists, including Venetian Snares, Hrvatski, Boxcutter, Jlin, RP Boo and Ital Tek, through Planet Mu, the label he founded in 1995.

At the start of his musical life, Paradinas’ aggressively noisy and frantic tracks as µ-Ziq (pronounced music) were a kind of incitement, the echoes of which you can hear in the so-called drill’n’bass scene of the ‘00s and ‘10s.

µ-Ziq - Lunatic Harness

Twenty-five years after its release, µ-Ziq’s fourth album, Lunatic Harness, still sounds insane, as if he put drum-and-bass rhythms and washes of ambient music in a blender and pressed annihilate. Tapping computers’ increased processing power, what came out were beats that only an 8-armed drummer might hope to replicate.

This evolution in software, hardware and artistic ambition powered electronic music into its “head” phase. Who says that beat-driven electronic music needs only to propel the body to heave and jerk in rhythm? Why can’t it push the brain and soul to let loose for similarly thrilling explorations? It’s hard to code and dance at the same time, but you can always vanish to the center of your mind when the rest of your body’s unavailable.

“I like mixing beats up, sort of taking the piss out of the original arrangement of the beat, or the same sounds but in a different order,” Vibert said in a mid-1990s interview.

“Taking the piss” out of arrangements was a much needed evolution after a period in which minimalist electronic music was obsessed with the seductive, k-hole-pleasing repetition found in trance and progressive house. Writer Tim Haslett described the period as one in which “the monotonous sound of a 909 kick drum and high-hat was really beginning to wear on the nerves of even the most committed tech heads.”

Haslett used this stasis as a contrast with the then-new output from Manchester-based Skam Records, which, he wrote, “has single-handedly invigorated a minimal techno sound that’s not indebted to breakbeats or drum-and-bass. Having released early tracks by cult favorites Gescom and Boards Of Canada, the Skam imprint has continued to thrive at the periphery of the crepuscular world of underground techno.”

Gescom was Autechre under a pseudonym. The most critically lauded—and inscrutable—successes of the first-wave IDM universe, the pair used the Gescom moniker for more dancefloor-friendly (but no less jarring) tracks. Like similarly angular artists across genres and decades (The Shaggs, Captain Beefheart, J Dilla, Oneohtrix Point Never), Autechre takes patience and effort to absorb at first, especially the mid-career records. As they learned their craft, Rob Brown and Sean Booth progressed to invent their own musical language, one that combined hip-hop tempos and rhythms with noise, shattered-lens shards of synthetic melodies and a uniquely Autechrean way with a beat.