If you always knew that there was something secretly cool about the band geeks and computer nerds in high school, now they’re proving it in droves. They’ve found a niche in the post-industrial, technology-infatuated genre of IDM. That stands for Intelligent Dance Music by the way, though the name is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s more like computer-generated clicks, booms and static that people tend to prefer to sit around and think about rather than dance to. As with any genre, IDM has its hacks and also its geniuses. At its worst, it can be redundant or sterile irksome noise. But at its best, IDM layers sounds with deadly precision and an exceptional intricacy that’s only possible in computer-spawned music—which makes up for the fact that it’s usually not as much fun to watch a guy fiddle with a laptop as it is to see people rock out with real instruments.
Although the Germans and Brits have long reigned supreme in the realm of IDM, recently quite a few big names have emerged on this side of the Atlantic. Leading the charge in many ways is Kid606 and the bands on his record label, Tigerbeat6. Missoula’s not really what you’d call a hotbed for experimental electronic music, but people here get an itch now and again for something unconventional.
Those people will want to be around when the Tigerbeat6 “Paws Across America” tour swings through town next week with Cex, Numbers and Stars As Eyes.
Cex is a 20-year-old bony white kid from Baltimore who began putting out IDM records when he was 16. He’s been called an “IDM iconoclast” (Alternative Press) and a “stark raving teenage lunatic genius” (Forced Exposure). His IDM stuff is an electronic Gordian knot of sound that twists and tangles around itself, binding the listener with music that’s complex and wound tight as a tourniquet. Cex’s most recent album, Tall, Dark and Handcuffed, breaks away from IDM in many ways. He’s decided to try his hand at hip-hop music. Owing to his roots, Cex’s style of hip-hop is refreshingly different. There remains a strong element of intricate weirdness in the laptop beats he programs, and his rhyming style steers clear of thuggish stereotypes. Cex’s delivery is unabashedly geeky yet charming, and his lyrics are simultaneously intelligent, snotty and downright hysterical at times. Just the song titles are amusingly cheeky; case in point: “Florida is Shaped Like a Dick for a Reason,” or “Texas Menstruates.”
And the word on the street is that Cex’s live shows are filled with just as much raw adolescent absurdity. Getting out from behind the laptop allows him to flail around, strip down to his tighty-whities, flash his name-embedded gold teeth and do call-and-response with the audience. He says, “What’s my name?” and the crowd screams back, “C! E! X!” in the mock style of rap legends DMX. It’s all admittedly cheesy, but it also sounds fiendishly entertaining.
Numbers also stray from the IDM sound of Tigerbeat6 records—for starters, they play real instruments—but the sound has enough of a chic mechanical feel to it that they can get away with being on an electronic music label. Their sound is much closer to the synthetics of bands like Gang of Four or Devo than most of today’s laptop wizards.
Drummer Indra Dunis lays down disco-style beats and sings about consumerism, working and the proliferation of technology in a staccato yapping manner that recalls Numbers’ fellow San Franciscans Erase Errata or the Japanese psycho-core band Melt-Banana. The guitar is just as jagged and piercing. It tends not to carry the melody so much as thrust and stab at it, violently accentuating the key changes. And coolest of all, Numbers built its own synthesizer named “Buzzerk,” which pumps out robotic bass lines and bleeps and bloops that seem straight out of a 1960s-era sci-fi flick.
Stars as Eyes’ music is basically straight-up IDM. It is not as fast and chaotic as the splattercore of Kid606 or early Cex, but it focuses more closely on shapeliness and melody over intentional abrasiveness. At times, the scope of Stars as Eyes is almost orchestral, with soothing soft breaks of piano or strings. Of course there’s a fair amount of loud electronic drum and synthesizer, but the music seems consciously not to stray too far from the modern pop structure of songwriting.
For better or worse, Stars as Eyes can’t be included in the ranks of electro avant-garde IDM musicians who are intent on destroying and redefining every pre-existing notion about music. Their songs are emotive and subtle, but often lack the exciting pandemonium or really even the element of surprise that makes a lot of other IDM composers appealing. However if time-honored harmonies and somewhat conventional song architectures are more your bag, then Stars as Eyes could provide a gentle first step into the uncertain waters of electronic music.
The Tigerbeat6 tour rolls up at Jay’s Upstairs on Saturday, December 7 at 10 PM. Cover TBA.