M.E.S.H.’s second album Hesaitix runs from the radical deconstruction of is predecessor, embracing the dancefloor without sacrificing experimentation. IDM survivor John Twells examines an album that revises a sound by addressing its fatal flaws.
The term “intelligent dance music” – IDM, for short – was never championed by the group of studio nerds who piped their bleeps, drones and glitches into side rooms, afterparties and recovery tents back in the early 1990s. At the time, most artists preferred the more vague term “electronica” – not because it was more descriptive (it wasn’t), but because it didn’t attempt to intellectualize a sound that, initially at least, was never intended to be elevated. Often, the tunes weren’t even expected to function as dance music at all. This was the original “post club”, fomented in an acid blur and a cloud of smoke once dancing had subsided and deep listening had begun.
But as soon as the acronym picked up steam – mostly thanks to a popular early-90s online mailing list – it warped the canon irreparably. The vital early exploration of acts like Autechre and The Black Dog was quickly reduced to an easily-distinguishable meme. Glitchy, chattering percussion, wobbly synths and diced amen breaks were soon nothing more than aesthetic twists, eased along by access to technology. Until the ‘90s, complex studio equipment had been out of reach for the majority of young producers, but the emergence of cheap home computers and free audio editing software democratized the creation of electronic music. Everyone with a PC could download software and theoretically make their own tracks, inspiring a wave of artists and labels that appeared almost overnight.
Before long, the genre had devoured itself completely, revealing itself as a vapid feedback loop of bluster and posture. The internet phenomenon had cracked open a world of potential listeners but instead offered sycophants who praised a lack of progression the technology was already dictating. If our minds had been opened by chemicals, they were being closed by culture; opened by technological advances and shuttered by the predictable mirroring of toxic conservative structures. An idea that had initially suggested tightly-gridded dance music was too restrictive had become equally as confining. And yet, beneath all the digital trickery and divisive grandstanding, cracks were visible: an obsessive melancholia – endless yearning pads and manipulative minor-key melodies – signaled the despondency that subconsciously underpinned the pre-Great Recession neoliberal boom.
Counter to this pervasive eerie seriousness and interwoven into the genre was a wave of artists influenced by Aphex Twin’s progressively more irritating silliness. Aided by new technology that allowed jungle’s rhythmic innovation to be shifted into aggravating new structures, this goofy experimentation was, more often than not, barely more thoughtful than a toddler mischievously smearing diaper fruit on a nearby surface and guiltily eyeing the babysitter. It offered a counter to the gloomy repetition of the rest of the genre, sure, but different isn’t always better. Freedom is to be celebrated, but shit is shit.
James Whipple’s second M.E.S.H. full-length, Hesaitix, attempts to correct the polar shortcomings of late-stage IDM with hindsight and Kaufman-esque postmodernism. The title itself is a near-anagram of “cathexis”, a word that describes an unhealthy accumulation of mental energy and can often be misinterpreted as love or obsession. Subverting this idea, Whipple oversteps fandom and expectation by returning to the initial promise of IDM: Hesaitix functions as dance music, but is garnished by thoughtfulness that never feels performative.
“How did I become so stupid?” reads the album’s sparse press release. “A sound can be both formless and over-rendered, like a boneless but fleshy hand from a life drawing class.” Whipple is referring to deconstruction, or more specifically “deconstructed club”, a relatively recent diversion that transplanted a few of IDM’s discarded ideas and fused them with contemporary club tropes and the controlled chaos of the US noise scene. Often, the result was only partly realized – a chewed mouthful of cultural memes and their outwardly rebellious counters that acted as seasoning.
But by adding a backbone to the fleshy mass of formless sound, Whipple successfully taps into progression – not by creating something truly new, but by refining sounds that we’re already familiar with and highlighting their alternate uses. In the IDM era we were often blinded by science: artists were cyberpunk magicians wielding tools most of us didn’t understand so when the veil was eventually lifted, there could only be disappointment. Whipple approaches the album veil-less – he sees the Emperor’s unflattering bare body and isn’t afraid to challenge that level of perceived authority.
Take ‘Mimic’ for example – even the title breaks the fourth wall. Whipple lifts the percussive twang from Phoenecia’s Ketamine-fuelled 2001 opus Brownout but instead of allowing abstraction to inform evolution, he squashes the sounds into a driving club track, tangling the rhythm but pushing things forward with squealing synth hooks and bubbling bass. On ‘2 Loop Trip’ he harnesses the womping dub-influenced precision of Monolake but immediately blurs out the Berlin school’s overwhelming seriousness with an off-the-grid complexity that feels freeing and, dare I say it, soulful. Then, on ‘Search. Reveal.’ the album’s focal point, Whipple makes his most obvious nod to Richard D. James, losing the pots-and-pans percussion of fan-favorite ‘Yellow Calx’ in a mess of hedonistic squeals, sirens and familiar propulsive beats. It’s the dream of ‘Windowlicker’ disrupted by Whipple in a striped pullover, wielding a bladed glove.
In many ways, Hesaitix represents a cementing of IDM 2.0. It succeeds not only by addressing the genre’s fatal flaws but by highlighting a different method entirely. Whipple’s core motivation was to make his music more approachable without sounding conservative – a task way more arduous than formless abstraction – but he never loses the mystifying awe that piqued our interest in the first place. Dance music doesn’t have to be dull, repetitive and formulaic but neither does experimental music; the meeting of the two can be passionate, thought-provoking and funky. Hesaitix offers escapism that doesn’t demand an entry examination and if it’s not professing its intelligence, it is at the very least deeply insightful.
John Twells is FACT’s managing editor. Find him on Twitter.