How good were Warp? Going through old mix tapes and records recently has had me looking back on this label after not even really thinking about it very much for the last few years. It’s easy to do, isn’t it? Things change, they evolve and before you know it the stuff you liked is buried under a layer of sediment a mile thick, awaiting rediscovery from the the handful of diggers willing to get their hands dirty. Mind you, this probably isn’t what happened to Warp. They weren’t buried, they didn’t hide away. Instead they became so large it became almost impossible to properly see them.
From the very start Warp seemed to be aiming at something more than the usual slew of purely dance floor focussed 12″s, and those first EPs by the likes of Nightmares On Wax, Tricky Disco and LFO seem informed by something more than the acid house revolution. Bleepy, fun and very British in their attitude they were a different breed from the music slowly filtering in to the country from the states. There was also more than a hint of the day-glo chaos and musical optimism that lingered in the aftermath of the Madchester scene, which probably helped gain a certain amount of wary acceptance from the more mainstream music media. At a time when almost all house and techno seemed to be completely blanked by the likes of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds (to say nothing of the even larger publications which blanched at the idea of covering punk or indy, let alone music made with computers and machines) Warp and their roster seemed to be bestowed the honour of being the token electronic ambassadors (along with 808 State, Orbital and a select handful of others) and allowed the rare privileged of interviews in amongst the likes of Blur and Suede.
And yet for all that, it was the music that made the lasting impression. Searching through their back catalogue you can’t help but be stunned by what they brought to the world. I still get excited when I see one of those famous purple sleeves, designed by the Designers Republic, emblazoned with their logo which still looks like it was half-inched from a post-war Best-Of-British expo that never took place. Understated, perhaps even austere, they almost always contained something special.
It was their Artificial Intelligence sub label, though, that probably sealed their place, and their reputation for delivering more than just dance music. Whatever your view on the term ‘IDM’ – and I, personally, loath it – the music itself was top-notch, and the run of albums that began with the first Artificial Intelligence compilation itself and included The Black Dog, Polygon Window, Fuse and Autechre is still virtually unmatched.
B12’s Electro-Soma was the fourth release in the series. Bookended by Black Dog’s brilliant Bytes, and by Fuse’s Dimension Intrusion, Electro-Soma felt at first to be as musically in the middle as it was chronologically, although it didn’t take many listens for that initial impression to fade. Perhaps less experimental than many of the other Artificial Intelligence releases, it combined the rhythms and cadence of house and acid to a very techno pursuit of dreamy, futurist textures, and added more than a nod to synth purist luminaries like Vangelis. The resulting mix of heavenly sentiments and earthier needs, and of understanding the way in which techno works best when it plays to both the body and the mind, was maybe at its best in Obsessed. This was a track which made no effort to cover its background. The spirit of rave and of Chicago house was there in spades, but coupled with an airy, shining, energy that sent it back skyward.
Warp grew bigger, and it grew fatter eventually beginning to crowd out the scene it has come from. Interests in digital music distribution and retail, and in film production, gradually increased until they became almost as important as the music they loved so much. The records and the producers are different now, hailing from different backgrounds and drawing on different influences (it would be weird if the didn’t, though) but the label also feels different. Perhaps it’s because it seems to have essentially become a true major label, one of the few to really make it to dry land from the swamps of electronica. The question of how good were they still stands, though. The answer is they were very good. They were amongst the best, and without them this thing we all love would be so much poorer.