"This sounds like birthing music" my sister said, eyebrow raised, as she listened to the wispy ambience coming from my car radio, even as controlled glitches rumbled through. The track was 'Fill 3' by Speedy J, the penultimate track on Warp's 1992 compilation Artificial Intelligence. She had a point - especially when the track cross-faded into the seagulls 'n' shore SFX of Dr. Alex Patterson's 'Loving You Live'. This was the early Nineties. Yes, the era of rave, but also the era of chill-out and New Age influences, an era where party music was transformed from mettlesome to meditative. The back of the CD casing all but confirms this: "electronic listening music for long journeys quiet nights and club drowsy dawns [sic]."
Artificial Intelligence was Warp Records' 6th album-length release and the label's 3rd compilation overall, following 1991's Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove and early 1992's Evolution of the Groove. So why did Artificial Intelligence catch on in a way that neither of the Groove compilations did? It has to do with the way it was positioned to the record buying public, beginning with the album's cover. Phil Wolstenholme's CG depiction of a robotic life-form relaxing into a sofa as music plays, albums by Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd littering the floor. It nods to the futurist angle electronic music presented to wary audiences, while also capturing the ritualistic act of listening to music – listening placed with upmost importance over dancing. Wolstenholme's art promises that something recognisable exists within a futuristic world, something human.
Even at this early stage in the Sheffield-based label's existence, Warp were thinking outside of the box as an electronic label. The acid house boom had spurred on a number of outlets for one-off 12" releases, but Warp wanted to go the route of crafting the types of solid careers more associated with rock acts. The first wave of the label's existence brought about debut records for LFO and Nightmares On Wax, both acts still recording and touring to this day. With the label established and their career-arc approach being copied by others, Warp had to keep finding ways to push the envelope.
One of the founders, Steve Beckett, recalled to Red Bull Music Academy in 2007: "What was interesting for me was when you were coming back from the clubs at four or five in the morning, and people were playing tracks they'd made themselves that weren't made for the dancefloor." Soon, a collection of this home-based electronic music was underway, leading the label's second wave of releases. Talking to Jockey Slut in 1999, Autechre's Sean Booth claimed to have had his "head done in by Warp first time round".
Artificial Intelligence was not an unprecedented release, however, as the seeds of "electronic listening music" had been sown with the rise of chillout and ambient. This can be traced back to Paul Oakenfold's short-lived Land of Oz residency in 1989. Taking place at London's Heaven nightclub, it was a house affair with a VIP chill-out room, one that housed now-legendary sets from The Orb. The VIP status kept audience numbers small, and helped to spread the developing legend of their anything-goes performances. Their peers in the KLF released the Chill Out album the next year, an album that was sent to critics with a manifesto regarding "ambient house". The manifesto claimed that ambient was "the first major music movement of the Nineties". Meanwhile, chillout rooms were slowly but surely spreading around the UK. Alongside this movement, clubbers were becoming used to genres overlapping due to rave's inclusive vibe.
While The Orb were influential with their London sets, they were still a Sheffield-based act. It all went to show that there was something important coming out of the city, something that the London intelligensia were going to be catching up to. Cue Artificial Intelligence, its post-party approach helping to legitimise the strains of chillout and ambient in Europe. David Toop wrote in his book Ocean of Sound about 1993's "summer of ambient", capturing an international spread from London's popular Telepathic Fish parties (featuring sets from Artificial Intelligence alumni The Dice Man, aka Aphex Twin) and the Ambient Weekend, which took over Amsterdam's Melkweg venue.
What is most interesting about the compilation is the fact that it sounds like rave music. The type of things that clubs could easily fill a floor with. Away from the bubbling, tempo-shifting studies of Autechre and Aphex Twin, cuts from I.A.O. and Up! (aka Richie Hawtin) still functioned as dance music, with surging takes on melancholic deep house and techno. In this sense, the compilation functions as a critical take on electronic audiences. The presentation lures you in, but the actual content delivers something different. Rather than seeming like a bait-and-switch effort from the label, instead Artificial Intelligence is a practise in perspective.
Under the banner of "electronic listening music", it comforts the listener; allows them to see dance music through another spectrum, to confront their biases about club music and spend time with it. Warp's focus on developing artists beyond one-off 12" releases paid off here, as the album format calls on less of an immediate reading and a more measured approach. The compilation is an exercise in re-training the ear. It functions as music, but also music criticism.
Perhaps the music on Artificial Intelligence sounds this way because we are living in a post-A.I. universe, where the DNA of chillout and ambient have been adapted into the textures of modern electronic music. The genre lines have delineated once again (much like the rave scene's aforementioned inclusiveness), where genres as disparate as jungle, hardcore and techno occupied the same space. Now the internet has allowed genre guidelines to melt into the same pot, largely making critical exercises like this compilation less necessary. Another edition of the Artificial Intelligence series followed in 1994, but the shock of the new had faded.
Beckett was steadfast about not continuing to mine past glories – ""I didn't want to end up doing Now That's What I Call Artificial Intelligence," he told The Guardian in 2009 – and so the series folded. Artificial Intelligence's fluidity towards genre was applied to the label in their next stage of releases, as they welcomed artists such as Broadcast and Seefeel. Artificial Intelligence changed Warp and the way that many approached electronic music, causing shock waves that ripple onto this day. It introduced a lot to the musical world. You could call it birthing music, and you wouldn't be wrong.
You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon
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