by Mike Verdone
Published July 2008 in Beat Route magazine, Calgary
Beat Route archive
Warp Records was created in 1989 in Sheffield, England by Steve Beckett and the late Rob Mitchell. The label's beginning is modest, as that of many great successes are-- a simple small-business grant and a 500-copy first release sold from the back of a borrowed car. Forgemasters' Track With No Name produced by Robert Gordon was the first Warp release, but it was the second 12" single, Nightmares on Wax's Dextrous that gave the company its early taste of success selling 30,000 copies.
These primordial releases already show traces of the Warp Records style. Though simple-melodied Detroit techno tracks with 808 beats, the songs do have some odd sonic touches. Track With No Name uses a strange vocal synth and Dextrous has some dissonant short sample manipulation. They both feature an airy and open production style. Other labels at this time emulated the style producing a short-lived genre called Yorkshire Bleeps and Bass, but it was Warp that took the style and evolved it while other labels died out when the fad wound down.
Through the 1990's Warp collected a slew of abstract and strange electronic artists taking the label far from its dance music roots. Polygon Window's Surfing on Sine Waves featured hypnotic loops and warm melodies floating through reverberant space. Polygon Window was a side project of Aphex Twin, an artist who's been on Warp for almost the entirety of the label's existence, though never exclusively.
Autechre released their first album Incunabula in 1993 on Warp, a collection of pieces where electronic devices were free to be themselves. Glitchy, twitchy, and weird the album is full of skittering beats and seemingly random melodic sequences. As Autechre forged on through the 90's their releases on Warp became more and more alien, clinical, yet still somehow grasping on to a certain humanity.
Striding through the height of its electronic phase Warp picked up Squarepusher in 1997 in time to release his second album Hard Normal Daddy. Squarepusher is an obsessive workaholic musician in love with both freeform bass-guitar jazz freak-outs and spastic abrasive electronic beeps and boops. Hard Normal Daddy gets lumped into the acid jazz genre despite its mutating sampled beats and inhuman tempos climbing over 170 bpm. A Squarepusher fan is a masochist, for so pummeling is the sound one chooses to listen to.
Scottish duo Boards of Canada, on the other hand, construct slow and drifting music built of lethargic rap beats and unsteady melodies which recall both the wonder and terror of childhood. Though they spawned many imitators, most of them completely missed the point. Boards of Canada releases are full of ghosts, whispers, inscrutable mystery. Some say that BoC operate a cult in northern Scotland. This is not completely unlikely.
It is really the balance between the human and the electronic that Warp artists are exploring in this period: dragging the mechanistic perfection of the electronic into the world of the human. Squarepusher slides slow-moving, simple, poetic melodies in amidst halting jazz chords and epileptic breakbeats. Autechre broadcast their staticy outbursts into echoey chasms of warm reverb. Boards of Canada create music that recalls the wonder of childhood on the barest of decaying analogue synths.
In 2002 Warp Records shifted its focus. Watching the electronic music styles they fostered slipping into irrelevance, the label sought out artists with the qualities their current stable of artists lacked: youthful energy, acoustic instruments, unsequenced performances... and they started looking across the pond.
American hip-hop producer Scott Herren was signed with the stage name Prefuse 73. His first Warp album, One Word Extinguisher in 2003, paired glitchy beats with an undeniable funkyness, a vibrancy not heard on the label in a long time.
Warp's pickup of New York indie-dance-punk-whatever band !!! in 2003 seemed a bit odd. Their first Warp album, Louden Up Now is based primarily on revitalized disco beats on, gasp!, real drums. With intelligible vocals and electric guitar, this was a firm departure from the electronicky madness of the past, but what's amazing about Louden Up Now is that even today it sounds fresh. Certainly a release ahead of its time.
Another eyebrow-raising move was the signing of Newcastle pop band Maximo Park. While their first album on Warp, 2005's A Certain Trigger did feature some lo-fi synths and drum loops it was still a stretch to believe it was a Warp release. A straightforward pop act to keep the company solvent? They chart like mad in the UK...
And what about Battles? Mirrored features truly avant-garde rock performed with fiendish intensity; odd time signatures, primal percussion, vocal manipulation, but so alive! Such energy! By 2007 even old-school Warp fans like yours truly realized: this is a changed label, and change is good.
This is Warp's second golden age. The experimentalism and challenge from the electronic days is retained, but in this era the human-ness of music is emphasized, for what is music without the conscious listener? Now rooted in the imperfect nature of man yet extending into domains of intricacy, it's nearly a reversal of the Warp sound of the 90's.
The stable of Warp artists has remained small, and none are relegated to flash-in-the pan status. Even the old electronic artists are still nurtured (Autechre put out a very good album this year). Artistic development is taken as given. When a label believes in their musicians as artists, the fans can too.
This is the modus operandi of Warp Records: challenge and complexity. Respecting the listener. Never is a Warp release watered down for commercial palatability. Instead it feels like it is exactly as the artist intended to produce, unencumbered by corporate pressure. Real art. And this may be the secret to the longevity and respect Warp Records has garnered.