Label Watch: Warp Records
Our survey of the finest bleeps and bloops to ever emerge on this most iconoclastic of labels.
Subversive, raucous, deadly serious yet also playful and wry - that’s Warp Records for ya. For over thirty years this British label has delighted in going against the grain, challenging and thrilling listeners with work that doesn’t so much come from the musical cutting edge so much as cut the edge as it goes.
Perversely for such a resolutely counter-cultural institution, Warp’s commitment to radically progressive sounds has also come to drive several sea-changes in the popular musical landscape, with some of its foremost artists rightly revered as hugely important figures.
Many of you will be familiar with at least a few of the records and artists profiled in this label overview. If so, then see this as a chance to reacquaint yourself with some pioneering work; if not, you’d best strap yourself in - this music might just change your life.
Best artists on Warp
!!! (chk chk chk)
!!! - that’s pronounced “Chk Chk Chk”, by the way - are a band who people get hooked on from the very first listen. Since emerging from the New York City band scree of the early 2000s, !!! have continually delivered exuberant and wacky art-funk records which come off like a more carefree iteration of fellow NYC dance-punks The Rapture, or perhaps a modern-day version of pioneering post-punkers A Certain Ratio. From early successes like ‘Louden Up Now’ through to disco-based endeavours such as 2019’s ‘Wallop’, !!! have proven one of Warp’s most reliable and likeable acts.
Here he is. Richard D. James, the Aphex Twin himself. Cornwall’s most famous son is a monstrously important figure in the development of contemporary music. We say this not just for his musical innovations, though those are numerous - James has scores of classic records under his belt, redefining the terms of styles like ambient, acid house and breakbeat even as his music scoffs at the very notion of genre constrainment. It’s also for the way he carries himself, the kind of awe that he inspires in others, the way people still talk about him in slightly hushed tones almost three decades on from ‘Selected Ambient Works 85–92’. Despite the fact that James consciously chose to use his own image on his records in response to the trend for anonymity in much electronic music of the 90s, he remains a slippery character.
Those of you who know your International Phonetic Alphabet will already be aware that this group’s name is pronounced (/ɔːˈtɛkər/). The Rochdale duo have long done things their own way, a stance which has earned them a hugely dedicated following down the years. Autechre’s music is frequently challenging and bold, but ultimately their inventive electronics are accessible enough and provide easy points of entry for those willing to find them. Like Aphex Twin and The KLF, there is also a pointed counter-culturalism to some of their output - after the then-Tory government introduced Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994, strangulating rave culture with its prohibition of playing music outside “predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, Autechre released the track ‘Flutter’ on the ‘Anti’ EP, a tune which technically contained no repetition yet remained defiantly danceable.
Boards of Canada
Like Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada are another act with an air of mystique about them. However, the music that these two brothers make is a lot less confrontational than James’, the warm and welcoming tones of their records asking the listener to come on a voyage with them into a world of personal and popular nostalgia. After a run of head-turning EPs for labels like Skam in the mid 90s, Boards Of Canada leveled up after signing to Warp, delivering arguably the definitive statement of British electronica in the form of 1998’s ‘Music Has The Right To Children’. They worked the channels of this sound on subsequent LPs, 2002’s ‘Geogaddi’ and 2005’s ‘The Campfire Headphase’, and a handful of EPs before retreating from the limelight for the rest of the decade. In 2013 they made a triumphant return with ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’, a collection which earned them their first top-ten placing on the UK album chart.
Broadcast were one of the first bands to sign to Warp, but the music that this cult Birmingham collective make is as inventive as anything released by their more electronically-minded peers. The group is a missing link between the hypnagogic post-rock of Stereolab and Pram and the dreamstate psychedelia of Deerhunter. Broadcast’s sound softens motorik kosmische pulses with a space-rocker’s ear for texture and the sort of quixotic charm that one finds in Oliver Postgate and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. From 1997’s ‘Work & Non Work’ up to 2013’s soundtrack LP ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ - Broadcast’s most recent release at the time of writing - all of the band’s major work has emerged via Warp.
Flying Lotus first emerged as a precocious young upstart in the same mid-00s LA beat scene that included Daedalus and Shlohmo, but he has come of age on Warp. Steven Ellison had a lot to live up to in his family line - his great-aunt is none other than Alice Coltrane - but his output to date has risen to the challenge with aplomb. The jazz that is his birthright is more a guiding principle than core sound, its questing energy subsumed into a set of sprawling and ambitious records which take in everything from Madlib-style hip-hop to fusion, funk and the surrealism of his one-time collaborator David Lynch.
LFO have a claim to being the most important act of Warp’s early years. The duo of Mark Bell and Gez Varley certainly helped the label break into wider public consciousness, their eponymous 1990 single - a track which also became an anthem of bleep-techno - giving the label its first top-twenty hit on the UK singles chart. The trio of LPs that LFO produced between 1991 and 2003 (the final one coming after Varley had left the band) brought together many of the best things about Warp’s aesthetic - despite being iconoclastic and fearless, they also gave you a sense that you were being invited into some secret society which was going to shape the future for the better.
Plaid have proven to be one of the most reliable and enduring acts to emerge from the 90s electronica and IDM boom. Whereas contemporaries have taken extended time off from releasing music or disappeared altogether, Plaid continue to average a new album every couple of years, a workrate which saw them hit double figures for studio LPs with 2019’s ‘Polymer’. They have made a lot of charming music in their time, stuff that is rich in harmony and a sort of wide-eyed hopefulness. The fact that Plaid have remixed the likes of Björk and Goldfrapp demonstrates the high regard in which they are held by artists from across the musical spectrum.
I guess he's called Squarepusher because he pushes squares? As in the squares on synthesizers, samplers, MPCs and the like? Despite the name, Tom Jenkinson’s musical abilities extend beyond the box - he is a dab hand on the jazz bass and can also do a job on keyboards. All of these skills have been brought into play at various points throughout his long and distinguished career as Squarepusher. A contemporary of Aphex Twin - they have worked together in the past - Squarepusher sticks more rigorously to the tenets of breakcore, drum ‘n’ bass and IDM in his music. He is renowned for his production often having a rather zany feel to it, though LPs like 2015’s ‘Damogen Furies’ demonstrate that Jenkinson can get dark when he needs to. Those whose ears are pricked by the jazz influences in Squarepusher’s work should also check the music Jenkinson has made as part of Shobaleader One.
The Black Dog
Before Plaid, there was The Black Dog. Prior to Ed Handley and Andy Turner splitting off to pursue Plaid more earnestly in 1995, they spent a few years creating electronic work alongside Ken Downie in The Black Dog. Since those early days in which they furthered Warp’s bleep-techno and IDM aesthetics, The Black Dog’s music has become increasingly dark - the stuff Downie has made with new members Martin and Richard Dust since the turn of the century is particularly moody, with their squelching beats even swapped out for full-on dark ambient tones on LPs like 2010’s ‘Music For Real Airports’.
Best albums on Warp
Part of Warp’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ series, B12’s debut LP ‘Electro-Soma’ split the difference between the more contemplative sounds of the other ‘AI’ drops and a stargazing techno style indebted to Detroit legends like Underground Resistance and Derrick May. The Essex duo of Mike Golding and Steve Rutter delivered a delightful collection of futurist compositions on this 1993 LP. This is curious music - not in the sense of it sounding strange (though there’s definitely plenty of invention here), but more in terms of how the chirruping synthesisers and skipping programmed drums convey a certain wide-eyed wonder to the listener.
What with all of Warp’s electronic innovations down the years, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the label has long been a home for some of rock’s best and brightest as well. In 2007, there were few albums of any genre better and brighter than Battles’ ‘Mirrored’. This was the debut LP from a group of wiry New Yorkers whose clean-cut looks disguised some serious instrumental chops - guitarist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier had previously wowed in Don Caballero and Tomahawk respectively while leader Tyondai Braxton had studied at the renowned Hartt School. However, though there is plenty of impressive playing across ‘Mirrored’, this is a sleek, lean set, the composition muscular and precise. By and large Battles let their grooves do the talking here, but the moments in which vocals did emerge were thrilling - Braxton yelped through ‘Ddiamondd’, sighed on ‘Tonto’, and elevated ‘Atlas’ to become one of the strangest anthems in rock history.
On his inspired fourth album ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ Danny Brown squared up to his own persona, shaking off the party-boy public perception created on prior hedonistic revelries ‘XXX’ and ‘Old’. Brown exposes the turmoil and anxieties behind substance abuse here, revealing life-at-the-edge tales over feverish production. The title comes from the funereal Joy Division song and J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, the album’s major influence alongside Talking Heads’ ‘Remain In Light’ and Björk’s ‘Vespertine’. Like its influences, the sampling is impressively eclectic - Paul White, The Alchemist and Evian Christ are amongst the plunderers here, crafting beats from horror scores, Krautrock classics, fractured funk and Chicago house. Post-punk and industrial rock fans will find a lot to love about ‘Atrocity Exhibition’.
In a just world Gang Gang Dance would be one of our most celebrated bands, fawned over for a discography that was years ahead of its time. ‘Saint Dymphna’, their 2008 LP for Warp, demonstrates everything great about this wonderful, singular outfit. Gang Gang Dance ran with the no-wave energy of NYC forebears like Liquid Liquid and Sonic Youth but also made it distinctly more vibrant and globalised. A chaotic energy drove these tracks forward - embodied best in Liz Bougatsos’ brilliantly erratic vocals - but Gang Gang Dance’s aesthetic is ultimately quite calculated, a space where worldly utopianism of the fourth world is smashed up against a borderless sonic palette in a way that exemplifies the very best ideals of post-punk.
Grizzly Bear are generally characterized as an indie-rock group. When you hear LPs like ‘Veckatimest’ you'll certainly find truth in that statement - particularly if you factor in how ‘Two Weeks’ has become a festival anthem since this album’s 2009 release. However, Grizzly Bear operate just as much on the same experimental outcrops that host their Brooklynite contemporaries Dirty Projectors. ‘Veckatimest’s choppy combination of stately rock grooves, electronics, vocal harmonies and chamber instrumentation makes for an oddly moving blend, like Wolf Parade waltzing with Fleet Foxes.
‘Cut 4 Me’, the LP with which Kelela made her mark back in 2013, was a fine attempt to blend cutting-edge club production with the singer’s tempestuous vocals. However, the combination felt a little awkward at times - you sensed that Kelela was selling herself short in trying to make her singing work with the beats. These problems were solved on 2015’s ‘Hallucinogen’ EP, Kelela’s debut Warp drop. Here, all elements of the music shaped themselves around her tales of a failing relationship, with producers as prestigious as Ariel Rechtshaid, Arca and Girl Unit falling into line. The resulting record made for a bold and futuristic vision of R&B, one that many spent the rest of the decade playing catch-up with.
I can’t believe Autechre isn’t even the hardest name to pronounce on this list. Oneohtrix Point Never is the long-running project from Daniel Lopatin, one which arguably reached its peak with 2013’s magisterial ‘R Plus Seven’. Despite featuring one of the most dispassionate artwork/title combinations maybe ever, here Lopatin showed electronic music at its most human, its most tantalising. MIDI choirs create their own musical traditions, which then collide with heaving organs and trance-inspired synths. ‘R Plus Seven’ looks to the past while striding purposefully to the future, and finds room for devotions of all kinds; both the holy and the ravey.
To my ears, ‘Glass Swords’ is possibly the most faithful update of the “classic” Warp sound that the label delivered in the 2010s. This isn’t to say that the 2011 debut LP from Glaswegian producer Rustie simply reheats the old electronica/IDM archetypes - far from it, in fact. ‘Glass Swords’ is a whirlwind of invention, a technicolour overload which smashes together trap, dubstep, UK garage, computer game music and so much more to create one of the most ecstatic records you’ll ever hear. However, it’s this feeling of a producer using their electronic equipment to forge new sonic worlds - the sense that Rustie is going about his business with both an incredibly coherent artistic vision and also a feverish glee that borders on delirium - which ties ‘Glass Swords’ to the ’I Care Because You Do’s and ‘Music Has A Right To Children’s of this world.
Warp’s early years were characterised by the label putting out some classic pieces of “bleep ‘n’ bass” music from artists like LFO and Sweet Exorcist. That began to change with the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ series, a set of records which Warp dropped between 1992 and 1994. The first ‘Artificial Intelligence’ release, a compilation of the same name, set out its stall in the sleeve notes; “Artificial Intelligence is for long journeys, quiet nights and club drowsy dawns.” A collection of “electronic listening music” from rising stars including Autechre and Speedy J, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is a key record in the development of both Warp and the electronica/ambient techno field in general.
(N.b. The YouTube link below is for the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ film that Warp released in 1994. As such, the audio is different from that of the aforementioned album - we’ve included it here more to show how innovative and progressive the ‘AI’ output was as a whole.)
Before Yves Tumor signed to Warp they made experimental, often rather challenging work which came off like a more mystical take on James Ferraro’s sound. However, in the space of just two LPs Tumor had morphed into a devilish pop auteur for the post-Prince world. 2020’s ‘Heaven To A Tortured Mind’ was widely lauded as a potential classic record of this still young decade when it emerged - time will tell on that front, but this is undisputedly a masterpiece of mutant pop from Tumor, a collection of valium-soaked alien-soul for the noir hours.