2016 has seen the best new music from Autechre in years, the return of Planet Mu artists Datach’i and Jega, and both new and experienced techno producers incorporating the sounds of the early ‘90s into their music. With complex beats and bright melodies becoming more prominent in underground club music, Scott Wilson asks: is IDM actually making a comeback?

There are few genre names as contentious as IDM. The term “intelligent dance music” is a hangover from The IDM List, an early ‘90s mailing list that was dedicated to music on Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series, tracks with vibrant melodies and irregular rhythms. It was music you could dance to, but also listen to on headphones. It was music for adventurous clubbers, but it also became something of a lifestyle choice.

“I just think it’s really funny to have terms like that. It’s basically saying, ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid’,” said Aphex Twin in a 1997 interview. You could argue that dance music culture has regressed in the last five years during the rise of EDM, but when IDM was coined there was no way you could say that the sleek, futuristic techno coming from Detroit in the ‘90s was dumb.

The genre fell out of favour in the early 2000s, but surveying the current crop of electronic releases it seems as if we’re in the middle of an IDM revival. Aphex Twin and Autechre are enjoying their most prolific period in over a decade. Acts such as D’atachi and Jega have reemerged with new and unheard material. Planet Mu boss Mike Paradinas is reissuing his collaborative album with Richard D. James. More interestingly, the very sounds and structures of IDM appear to be working their way back into favour with a new generation of producers.

The past few months have seen the release of a string of unusual electronic records which 20 years ago might have been shared over internet messageboards. Chief among them is the new record from 22-year-old Scottish producer Calum MacRae, aka Lanark Artefax. Released on Lee Gamble’s UIQ label, the Glasz EP’s five tracks are filled with strobing rhythms and jittery synths that are difficult to mix and even harder to dance to. Standout track ‘Virtual Bodies’, for example, is warm and emotional, but also sounds like a Windows desktop in the middle of a catastrophic software failure.

As MacRae tells me, ‘90s and ‘00s acts like Autechre, Mike Paradinas, The Black Dog and others who have been classified as IDM across their career have all been a big influence on his sound, but he sees it as a “reductive” term. “I think that it’s less about ‘intelligence’ than it is about emotion and sincerity,” he says.

“I feel like these artists are inextricably bound up with music they make, trying to inject themselves – or some sense of themselves -into the gaps between sounds. They’re not standing at a distance to or behind the weight and power of the sounds themselves, which I think is the tendency with a lot of club-orientated music. It’s music that gestures towards something that cannot be readily articulated or signified in its own language.”

MacRae’s comments tie in with a common thread running through the recent wave of producers whose music shares qualities with IDM. Unlike producers working in the so-called ‘deconstructed club’ sphere, Lanark Artefax’s music is largely free of recognisable sonic signifiers like breaking glass, gunshots or Korn samples. Instead, he uses minimal palette to create abstract structures, an approach shared by Autechre and Venetian Snares.

It’s also a common thread in the music of Second Woman, the duo of Belong’s Turk Dietrich and Telefon Tel Aviv’s Joshua Eustis. Their self-titled debut, released on Spectrum Spools in June, is one of the year’s most striking electronic albums. Using bespoke software devices, the pair build tracks that combine a foundation of unstable, processed computer rhythms with immersive dub textures: think Autechre and Basic Channel going ASMR.

The duo admit that it would be hard not to be influenced by Autechre, but they explain that just because the Warp mainstays are a precursor to their brand of software-processed music, it doesn’t mean they’re trying to replicate them. “For us it’s just something that’s in our brains,” Dietrich says. “To think about things being tilted, architectural, and kaleidoscopic in regards to timing and space in the audio field. We feel enslaved by the grid of modern music production and DAWs. Getting off that grid has been one of our biggest inspirations – we like the freedom and the lack of defined rules.”

“It’s very hard for us to colour within the lines, and honestly it’s been that way for us since the ‘90s,” Eustis adds. “The process of making this kind of music is somehow completely natural to us and it’s always been a question of wanting to slide things around and liberate them from the tyranny of time.”

Another release to fall loosely into this bracket is the latest 12” from Angus Finlayson, aka Minor Science. On his debut for The Trilogy Tapes and remixes for Stroboscopic Artefacts, his sound has fallen somewhere between abstract electronics, deep techno in the Workshop mould and the bass-heavy club tracks of UK producers such as Batu and Bruce. His recent release for Whities sounds distinctly different: ‘Naturally Spineless’ and ‘Underripe’ both have rhythmic backbones best described as twitchy, and their melodies tread the line between emotive and alien. But for Finlayson, any such comparisons are purely coincidental.

“I’ve never considered IDM a major influence on my music, though of course I’ve listened to and admire both Aphex and Autechre, and those artists are so fundamental to how electronic music sounds now that some sort of indirect influence is almost inevitable,” he says. “If you’re hearing a parallel between my music and those artists maybe it’s that we share an approach in the vaguest sense. To me IDM was one of the first genres to approach dance music in a particular way: taking existing forms and twisting them, combining them or accelerating them to make something (hopefully) fresh. I try to do similar things in my music, though there’s a fundamental difference in that I’m still interested in dancefloor functionality.”

There are varying degrees to which Lanark Artefax, Second Woman and Minor Science can be compared to early IDM in a structural and aesthetic sense, but they all share that desire to take existing forms and create something new. It’s not just these artists either: Rian Treanor, Lee Bannon, Theo Burt and M.E.S.H. have all released records over the past 12 months that don’t fit comfortably into existing scenes, but share that same sense of experimentation. Warp duo patten have an album on the way that sounds like a 2010s update of the Artificial Intelligence sound, while UK techno artists Second Storey and JoeFarr have undoubtedly been incorporating wriggly IDM motifs in their productions. Leyland Kirby, who poked fun at the po-faced IDM scene in the ‘90s as V/Vm, has resurrected the project “with music nobody wants or needs.” So is underground music having a collective IDM flashback?

“Even if it’s not entirely conscious of it, I think it’s certainly drawing upon the same ideas,” MacRae says. “I guess the Artificial Intelligence series signified this shifting away from electronic music as dancefloor music back in the ‘90s and gave it a new ‘listening’ potential outside the club. I feel that what it maybe represented was club music and culture being drawn back out into the world from which it was created, embodying a vulnerable humanity that is often absent from club music.”

Dietrich agrees: “These things have always been cyclical. It seems only natural that after the last five years of techno overload that some sort of shift was going to happen. We weren’t purposely chasing a new zeitgeist when we set on this path, but after we finished our first album, I came across Theo Burt’s Gloss, Rian Treanor, and Jlin, and thought there was some similar ideas there – I told Josh they were our spiritual cousins.”

“It always happens with techno that it invites a new crop of punters to clubs every ‘cycle’ and then eventually some of these people get bored with it and start digging deeper into where some of that music comes from,” adds Eustis. “The deeper you delve, the more slanted things start sounding. We’ve been in a grayscale world of techno over-saturation that’s started pushing people to want something different, be that [labels such as] Modern Love, The Death of Rave, PAN.”

“I think it’s been possible to say the same thing for most of this decade and possibly longer — at least since ‘experimental’ became a desirable word in dance music again and it became normal to mention a label like PAN in the same breath as a techno label,” says Finlayson. “There have been many waves and permutations of things which in some way or other sound like IDM — whether instrumental grime, ‘deconstructed club’, new computer music influenced by people like Mark Fell and Russell Haswell, or even the techno of Bruce.”

That reflects an overall shift in mood among club producers, believes Finlayson. “At the moment, formal invention often trumps dancefloor function. Particular aesthetic poses associated with the ‘experimental’ are in fashion, and festivals in the Unsound/Atonal/CTM mould are booming. And yes, this shift does mirror some of the values associated with IDM. But in a sense I think IDM was a symptom of a similar paradigm shift in the late ‘90s, just as the music I mentioned is a symptom of it now. The causes are likely to be much deeper than the revival of a specific genre, involving technology, economics and the dynamics of the media.”

It’s a stretch to suggest that producers like Lanark Artefax and Second Woman will sweep house music from Ibiza’s clubs and austere techno from the European festival circuit. But there’s no doubt that the innovation and desire to create electronic music outside of existing categories that spurred Autechre, Mike Paradinas and Aphex Twin in the ‘90s has never been as strong as it is now. The best thing to ensure this innovation continues? Don’t try to give it a name, and certainly don’t call it IDM.

Scott Wilson is on Twitter

Read next: The 100 greatest IDM tracks

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