Intro to Intelligent Dance Music (IDM)

Just in case you don’t know what dance music is, we will first explain that, and then describe its subgenre, intelligent dance music.

Dance music, also known as techno, was borne of a generation or two with all this new technology at its fingertips.

In the 1970’s, we had the synthesizer becoming available to more people with its mass production and reduced selling prices, and the subsequent foray into the creation of ambient music.

Then, into the 1980’s, we begin to work with computers as well as influences from 70s acid-inspired music and disco, as well as synthesized beats.

Together, these facilitated the development of dance music: electronic music with repetitive beats that is designed specifically to get people moving. 

Okay. Now we all know what dance music is. It’s music designed to make people move their bodies. But what is intelligent dance music and how does it differ from regular plain old dance music? 

As you may surmise, the genre is rather controversial and has seen a lot of backlash for being derogatory toward other genres, as though it were the only dance genre for smart or superior people. 

Intelligent dance music, also known as IDM, is rather a form of electronic music that first emerged in the early 1990s that was designed more for home enjoyment than nightclubbing or dancing.

 

It formed as a result of experimentation and inspiration from other dance genres such as acid house, techno and ambient music. It is cerebral and rather abstract in its sound. It does not follow traditional song structure at all.

Most people to this day hate the title but enjoy the genre. With this article we will look into some of that controversy and how it got its name in the first place, and then we will provide some examples of artists within the genre so you can taste and see if you are intelligent enough to appreciate it.

Just kidding about that last bit, of course….

Let’s first look at one of the influencers, ambient music. Ambient music was very prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Toward the end of the 1980s, ambient had combined with house to form ambient house music, which covered any music that was just as enjoyable to simply listen to as it was to dance to. It provided atmosphere while giving just the right amount of tangible energy to the listener.

By the early 1990s this genre had, quite essentially, exploded following the popularity of the rave scene. This genre as we mentioned was targeting an at-home audience. Around this time people were turning their noses up and frowning down upon the word rave.

 

An English record label released a compilation called Artificial Intelligence in 1992, designed for listening at home. Featured on this compilation were Aphex Twin, The Orb and others using aliases. The compilation was wildly successful and as a result, the term “intelligent techno” came to popularity.

Other names were of course used to describe this music including art techno or, most hilariously, armchair techno. No matter the umbrella term, the umbrella was the music enjoyed by people who preferred to stay at home rather than attend a rave to hear this music. This music was so popular in the early 1990s that, even though it began as an underground dance scene, it was now very marketable and mass-produced.

Don’t be confused, though: when we describe the at-home listener, the person may well be motivated to take on a day’s chores or complete an exercise regime. The music is not much like ambient at all; it is very fast with drum and bass. There are elements of ambient in the background but the repetitive beats are far too powerful, I’d say, to be considered ambient.

The phrase “intelligent techno” actually showed up in 1991 on message boards as well as offline, in music press by 1992.

During the same time, around 1992 and 1993, hardcore techno records were rather formulaic and repetitive. Rather than referring to the music as rave music, clubs started advertising the DJ sets as intelligent techno.

This attracted a crowd who was tired of the current hardcore techno that was now very commercialized. So while the “intelligent dance music” name may have been taken from the Artificial Intelligence compilation, it is pretty easy to also assume it catered to a crowd frustrated by the new commercialization of a genre previously enjoyed underground. 

In fact in 1993 a few record labels emerged that were entirely for intelligent techno.

 

The phrase gained popularity on the internet and implied music that was for more than just dancing to. Popular artists – or, should we say, well-known artists – included Aphex Twin, LFO and The Future Sound of London. 

The second Artificial Intelligence compilation was released in 1994 with sleeve notes telling the listener about the many cultural and musical influences on the development of the genre and making sure to declare that none was more important than the other.

Surely, one can’t help notice the irony of the words artificial and intelligence next to each other? We do realize it has everything to do with computers but it is a little funny. On that note, let’s look at the controversy within the genre.

For one, the music is not easy to dance to. It moves quickly and changes speeds often: highly mercurial, somewhat intense.

The name combined with the target market paints a picture of someone at home using thought and engaging intellectually with the music by listening, reflecting.

Some people disagree with all of this and find that, in their own experience with the two genres, plain old dance music is more listenable at home. IDM on the other hand is intense and difficult to follow and not at all calming. In fact some find it unsettling, so it is very interesting that the marketers of the music had a different idea.

The community of dancers who were excluded from the IDM scene and genre asked sarcastically did they then listen to Stupid Dance Music.

What’s even more interesting is to call something dance music and make music within that genre and then declare that also suits sitting at home. Was this intended? Do the dancers have the right to be offended?

The history of music is all very interesting stuff. Like the history of anything, there is much question of loyalty and identity. Even Aphex Twin, one of the best known artists in the genre, rejects the term Intelligent Dance Music, saying that it’s ridiculous to put oneself above another that way, preferring not to use names at all but rather go by how music makes them feel.

aphex-twin-top-gear

The music itself can be confusing and rather disorienting to listen to. It is highly chaotic and robotic, very computer-like in every way. If you can imagine the sound of data being organised in a computing system then you can imagine IDM (don’t worry: we provide some IDM at the end of the article).

Another well-known artist in the genre, Autechre, agrees that IDM is weirder than pop music, but thinks the title Artificial Intelligence was rather a joke and indicated science-fiction references, so the listeners would associate the sounds with space, robots and the like. Autechre also takes issue with the very definition of intelligence and says the artists are just brilliantly talented musicians making really good music.

The scene was really big both in England and Japan, but it seems that the term IDM is mostly used in the United States. Englishmen, for example, may use the term when speaking with Americans but do not really use it much in their own country.

To this day the genre is popular and enjoyed worldwide.

Like with most genres, the founders and those at the forefront are considered classics and, ironically, can sometimes be heard in nightclubs: usually ones that play electronic dance music (EDM) or electronic body music (EBM).

There are even subgenres of IDM including drill and bass, microhouse and breakcore. 

Here are some essential IDM musicians to check out:
Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin is an Irish musician highly revered as one of the most important electronic music artists of all time.

Autechre

Autechre is an electronic duo from the UK. They have been active since 1987.

LFO

This band is from the UK and not to be confused with the American LFO. They have been making music since 1988. LFO stands for low-frequency-oscillator, which is used in electronic music.

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