So-called "IDM" or "intelligent dance music" was a conscious rejection of the club and dancefloor fixation of mainstream electronic music. The artists associated with that style (mainly the artists signed to Warp Records in the early nineties) were deliberately non-glamorous. They worked behind multiple self-effacing pseudonyms, often refusing to reveal their real names. They disdained celebrity and disposability, and advocated the creation of a "new kind of music" which would somehow be different from, and deeper than, what was currently popular.
There were many wild claims associated with the music. Pick up Warp's second Artificial Intelligence compilation, and you'll find a typically fawning, overblown essay in the liner notes. Many of the early Warp artists liked to wallow in a kind of infantile techno-mysticism, which fetishized robots and machines and claimed that techno music was going to pave the way for mankind to achieve a greater spiritual awareness, and so forth in that vein. But today, much of their work sounds more dated and less inspired than the work of their more popular contemporaries. It's not just because the production sounds obsolete. Derrick May's Rhythm Is Rhythm singles have even more crude production, but they're still listenable today. But that's because May had some skill as a pop songwriter, whereas the Warp artists often enjoyed making their sound inaccessible.
Which brings us to Black Dog Productions. They appeared on Warp's first Artificial Intelligence compilation, which could be said to have launched the style, and released a few albums before breaking up. Two of the members continued under the name Plaid, another big name in IDM. This particular album is a reissue of Black Dog's early singles. The tracks on the first disc were never released on an album, whereas the second disc replicates an earlier 1994 compilation of non-album tracks called Parallel. There are 22 tracks here, lasting over two hours in total. It is not an entirely exhaustive collection (for instance, it doesn't include a track called "Parasight" which appears only on the second Artificial Intelligence album), but it contains a lot of stuff. Too bad that the stuff is, by and large, uninteresting.
At their best, Black Dog could come up with very clean, pristine-sounding melodies. Their 1993 album Bytes still appears occasionally on "best techno albums ever" types of lists, and some of the tracks on it are absolutely outstanding. For example, "Carceres Ex Novum" starts with a slow ambient intro, adds a fast, complex beat, and then brings in a cool, detached-sounding piano solo over that beat. Well, Book Of Dogma has exactly one unadulterated gem to add to the band's reputation, namely the second track "Ambience With Teeth." (The track listing on the first disc is wrong: "The Weight" is listed as the second track, but it's really the third.) The keyboards have a similarly clean sound, vaguely evocative of a cold mountain range, but the song is driven by an excellent bass line, which adds some motion to the melody.
But unfortunately, that's all. The rest of the first disc is bland at best, irritating at worst. For instance, was it really necessary to include two very similar versions of "The Weight," which consists of one pedestrian, unchanging hip-hop beat plus one repeating sample of a shouting rapper and another of a couple of notes on a funk guitar? But the other tracks are very similar in style. Each track has at most only one melodic element, and I really mean just one element, like a couple of stray rhythm chords or drawn-out keyboard notes. The melodic element is repeated over and over without variation, then disappears for a while, then reappears again after a long stretch of repetition of just the main beat. The beats likewise contain very little variation. They don't build up or change, they just thump out the same basic rhythms, which aren't noteworthy either. The album has lots of percussion, but not one drum hook. A few tracks like "Seers And Sages" have more detail, and even a few changes in tone, but the keyboard leads are still very basic, and there's nothing that can lodge in one's head or leave an impression after the track finishes.
The biggest strength of electronic music is its ability to combine layers of sound in interesting ways, or use production to create mood. But these Black Dog tracks are too rudimentary for that. They don't have layers of sound, and the production is so basic that most of the instruments sound atonal. Compared to contemporaries like Underworld, whose tracks contain detailed rhythms, build up to dramatic crescendo, and create emotional atmosphere, Black Dog sound lacking.
The second disc is better, in that the melodic elements are a bit more detailed and occasionally even interact with each other. And even then, things don't start to get interesting until around the fourth track, "Glossolalia," which has a pretty, fragile keyboard sound. The remaining tracks just go back and forth between these soft keyboards and dissonant drum and bass. When "Virtual Hmmm" seems to shift into a major key with a loud house beat and some rave-style synths, it's the first potentially exciting moment on the disc, and this on the second-to-last track. But even here, Black Dog don't really do anything interesting with these elements that their contemporaries in rave and techno hadn't done. The synths blare for a bit, and then it's back to the ambient backdrop from the beginning.
So, unfortunately, this huge comprehensive reissue only serves to reveal the limitations of the Warp aesthetic. If you're looking for an album from that time period, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a perfect album that truly sounds like nothing else on earth, with many memorable rhythms and melodies. Black Dog's own Bytes is quite good in places, but Book Of Dogma is for the band's most devoted fans only.