Written by @precenphix
Prior to ever hearing the term “techno” or “industrial,” my exposure to electronic music was fairly limited. The pulsing arpeggios of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” from Dark Side of the Moon and McCartney’s “Temporary Secretary” from 1980’s McCartney II were my first taste. I loved The Cars album Heartbeat City and became an ardent Prince disciple a little while later. Both artists seemed to have a mastery of this sound I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but found captivating. Without some finagling, synthesizers were strange, frigid instruments I assumed you needed a degree to operate or play and they were used only sparingly in pop tunes, peppering the sonic landscape as an afterthought. You certainly couldn’t build an entire song with them, as far as my young mind was concerned. It wasn’t until 1984, when I heard the Beverly Hill Cop theme, that I became aware that these were actual, playable instruments. I had to have a copy of that record…and a dinky little Casio so I could play along. I begged my parents for both. As happenstance would have it, my dad mistakenly brought home a copy of Herbie Hancock’s “Rokit” on 45. The A-side was great, but the B-side “Megamix” was incredible. I was in love.
Flash forward to 1994. I was 15 years old when a friend let me borrow his copies of Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP and newly released The Downward Spiral concept album. The summer was gone, the colors of autumn had faded and I had just been dumped by my then girlfriend of a whopping nine months. That’s a decent swathe of time in dog years and about twice as long for a teenager with a freshly broken heart. I was utterly shattered and needed something to quell my existential angst in a hurry.
My friends at the time were into metal, but it just wasn’t me. I craved a broader palate of sound beyond slappy bass drums and palm-muted guitars. Reznor’s work was right up my alley. The Broken EP hooked me, but I stayed for the fearless experimentalism of The Downward Spiral. Suddenly, everything I knew about the use of electronics in music was wrong. Here were the sounds I thought I knew having new, visceral life breathed into them. This was music that sounded remarkably heavy, academic, dark, sexy and vulnerable at the same time.
Fueled by a rearing on The Beatles’ groundbreaking production techniques while being an avid listener of dense hip-hop a la The Bomb Squad, I had an insatiable appetite for unique music. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet – hip-hop meets musique concrète. Bob Power’s work on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, with the rest of the crew taking notes for their third record, Midnight Marauders – this took the idea of constructing a tune solely from samples to a new level. Newcomers Wu-Tang Clan’s debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – there was a dirt and grit to the production that lent a hand to the subject matter. These were my real precursors to pure electronic music. Paired with a newfound love for the more guitar-driven work by then up-and-coming Seattle acts Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam; as well as the volcanic art-rock of Sonic Youth, the transition to Trent Reznor’s work as Nine Inch Nails was a natural progression for me.
Prior to this, my knowledge of sampling was constrained to hip-hop’s crate-digging culture, mining Motown records for breakbeats or cutting up old George Clinton tunes over deep, bass bin-shaking 808 drums. Downward Spiral opener “Mr. Self Destruct” sounded as if a microphone had been laid beside the tracks of an elevated train, acting as a texturizer to the song’s verses. The guitars of the chorus cleaved through the mix like the teeth of a saw blade. Just as the close of the song reached a fever pitch with white noise bucking and aliasing from my speakers’ tweeters, a bank of coarse feedback guitar loops and scrapes filled the void where the tune’s refrain dropped off – only to be interrupted moments later by the comparatively serene, slinky second track, “Piggy.” This was an artist who understood how to dress the set with aural contrast and certainly had a penchant for theatrics. It was exactly what I needed.
I bought both singles from The Downward Spiral and also flagged down a copy of the Broken EP’s remix disc, Fixed. It was around this time I balked at the naysayers’ idea that this was a self-indulgent process. These records introduced me to the idea that remixes weren’t reserved strictly for house tracks, club music or the occasional hip-hop re-work. Both the “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” singles were shining examples of taking a tune, re-shifting its direction and bludgeoning it into abstraction, yielding a barely recognizable version of the original. It was refreshing to hear an artist put a different spin on his own music as well as having other people the artist respected deconstruct the same work. It wasn’t an entirely foreign idea to me, yet the methods employed on these NIN records were. But it wasn’t until 1995’s Downward Spiral companion remix album Further Down the Spiral that I would once again have my eyes opened to what music (electronic or otherwise) could be. It was the recording that properly introduced me to the music of Richard D. James, otherwise known as Aphex Twin.
Further Down the Spiral went out of its way to be abrasive, focusing primarily on the tracks from The Downward Spiral album that had no earthly chance of becoming a single. Rick Rubin contributed a remix of “Piggy,” while Coil, an act I was only marginally familiar with at the time, reworked the album’s title track. But it was an instrumental track contributed by Aphex Twin that really turned my head. It seemed to fit the landscape of despair that created by the album, but no source material from the original record was used. “At the Heart of it All,” was a sprawling, 7-minute slab of industrial doom that sounded as if the seven horns of the apocalypse were bleating directly from within my sternum. It was a purely electronic composition that stood out from the rest of the pack yet retained this intangible organic feeling that elicited an almost overwhelming emotional response. I couldn’t explain it, but it just felt like “home.”
I had to have as much of this music as I could absorb, so I began working backwards, flagging down as much of the Aphex discography I could get my hands on. Distribution wasn’t what it is today, so it took some work finding shops that carried these records. I was able to pick up copies of …I Care Because You Do and the Ventolin EP. …I Care was more of a compendium of his work that was largely taking cues from the artist’s work in ambient electronic music. It wasn’t what I was expecting. While being marginally familiar with the work of Wendy Carlos, this was the first time I was hearing truly composed, contemporary experimental electronic music. The Ventolin EP was a stark contrast of much less polished garage techno that was playful yet caustic at the same time. I was almost loath to admit that I liked it so much. Prior to this, I was riding the good ship Indie Snob, a vessel where “techno” was dismissed as unemotional, push-button drivel that had very little value in terms of having something to say. But these records were proving that theory dead wrong. I had to have more.
Once I finally worked my way around to picking up Selected Ambient Works Volume II (commonly referred to as SAW2), I was curious as to what I would be getting. It was a double CD album with a foreign, weathered, almost alien-looking logo of some sort on the record’s cover. It spanned 23 untitled, largely beatless tracks that were represented by a color coded series of pie charts in the album art. Once again, I was taken aback. I knew who Brian Eno was and had heard enough of his production and music to understand what might have been an influence to James, but the music of SAW2 was so far into the abstract that the similarities were fleeting. One thing this wasn’t was “new age” music.
This music could be anything you wanted it to be. Warm, almost nostalgic tones on this expansive record could easily move one to tears in one breath while searing, glacial sheets of terror-inducing noise could send a shiver down the spine of even the most seasoned horror film veteran. This music ran the gamut of the human psyche without uttering a word. For a period of years, I would put SAW2 on the deck to concentrate on the music itself just as much as I would play it to study, sleep or get ready for the
day. It seemed as if it were custom built for my purposes and it was my go-to recording to unwind, meditate, brood, love, eat or sleep. It was a miraculous record in that it was my final gateway drug to so many artists I would have previously dismissed as “not my thing,” because “this music has no soul.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
If Nine Inch Nails introduced me to the work of Richard D. James, Richard D. James opened the door to a whole new world of sound for me. I found Autechre, Boards of Canada and Björk as well as a host of more obscure music by RDJ himself on his own record label, Rephlex. I began to take notice to Beck’s methods of production, DYI ethic and sample-mining. UK act Portishead showed up on the scene with an amalgam of jazzy, noir-infused beatnik soul, rife with layers of turntable antics. Drum ‘n bass was beginning to take hold with its frantic, skittery rhythms pushing the envelope of speed and micro programming. I discovered Jack Dangers’ act Meat Beat Manifesto who spent a short stint on Reznor’s Nothing Records imprint. All this was just the tip of the iceberg. Friends and I would trade mix tapes of the strangest music we could find.
The world was my oyster once these records changed my opinion of what music could or should be. And this is why I’d be doing myself a disservice to pick a favorite artist when the story of finding them all is so interwoven with personal milestones and moments growing up as a ravenous devourer of what was considered unusual music.
These two records, Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II opened my slumbering third eye to a world that had been quietly lying in wait. I’ve followed both artists since 1994-1995 and marveled at their output prior to those years and everything that has been released since. Not only were they pioneers back then, their music is just as relevant today. My life would be incomplete without it. Hearing the work of both artists gave me the confidence to try things with my own writing that I might have otherwise sloughed off. Most importantly, I had found two artists who used electronic and sample-based production techniques because they liked these sounds independently. They weren’t employing these methods to mimic more traditional, physical instruments. They took care to make sure these sounds stood on their own as a backbone to their compositions.
It wasn’t just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. These were artists who held a mastery of their craft while stepping firmly outside the Venn diagram of sounds typically used in popular music. But somehow they made their work accessible while simultaneously being influential zeitgeists in their respective genres of music. Reznor’s point of reference lay more in 80s post punk while James culled more influence from the rave culture in Detroit and UK scene. Yet both could produce music just as emotional and moving as any classical passage. But with their output, the studio became an instrument itself in the same way George Martin and EMI’s engineers had done with Beatles recordings of yesteryear. So if I were forced to pick a favorite artist of all time, both James and Reznor would receive the same accolades. They’ve changed my life for the better and I couldn’t imagine a world without their music.