Hello, Internet. I hope you are well today.
Next up on my quick run-through of a favorite artist’s discography is Autechre. Before diving in, though, it must be said that I have two pretty hefty bones to pick with these two English dudes. Bone the first: how in the fuck do you pronounce that name? This is an issue that I’m much more accustomed to dealing with when it comes to metal bands with either foreign language or made-up language names evoking various degrees of unpronouncibility (apparently not a word, but you know what I mean) or apoplectic, saliva-flecked rage in the pronunciation (Anaal Nathrakh, for example, or Nazxul – pretty sure there’s no way to say those names without sounding dangerously close to the edge of mental breakdown). But c’mon, guys – you’re English. I know it’s a bastard mongrel language, but I should at least have a general sense of how to get down to chewing on your name with my sound-forming muscles. Last time I did a bit of Google-imploring, the closest I was able to approximate is that it’s pronounced something like ‘awe-TEK-er’. Thankfully, one of the benefits of not having too many close friends into the exact same music as me is that there don’t arise too many opportunities for me to embarrass myself by tripping over an obviously incorrect pronunciation. Anyway, bone the second, which is really no fault of these dudes (Sean Booth and Rob Brown, by the way, for those of you playing along at home), is the stupid fucking ridiculous genre-designation ‘IDM’. Stands for ‘intelligent dance music’, which is just a hopelessly pretentious label, and not particularly helpful, especially when Autechre gets to that stage where they started fucking beats so mercilessly as to make any attempt at dancing a surefire way to self-induce a seizure.
(Seriously. Check out this [admittedly bad-ass] music video, and try to dance along a little bit:
Good fucking luck.)
Anyway, point is, I think IDM is a completely obnoxious term, and although it serves as a somewhat useful signifier for a range of avant-garde and off-kilter electronic acts from the early 1990s onwards (Aphex Twin, Black Dog Productions, The Orb [kind of], Plaid, Boards of Canada, µ-Ziq, or basically anyone early on the Warp records roster, &c., &c.), I hate it, and wish that, as a term, it would jump off a fucking cliff and die. So there.
Now that I’ve got that off the ol’ chest, on with the music.
Despite the fact that it sounds relatively conventional when compared to their later aural peregrinations, Incunabula arrived as a startlingly fully-formed whole. “Kalpol Intro” is one of the most brilliant introductory tracks ever written, and its haunting washes of static perfectly set up the rest of an album which is both ethereal and robotic, cerebral and warm. More or less straightforward rhythms propel these alien soundscapes, which, more often than not, are the structural support upon which are laid beautifully simple melodies (a trend picked up somewhat later by Boards of Canada). “Bike” and “Eggshell” are particularly favorites, but this album works wonderfully as a piece, and comes absolutely as close as any album I’ve ever heard (perhaps barring Aphex Twin’s landmark Selected Ambient Works, ’87-’92) to serving as the perfect soundtrack to a slow-motion dance party for underwater robots. Seriously. Listen with your eyes.
Released just a year after their debut album, Amber is very much like a slightly spookier twin of Incunabula. The rhythms remain mostly straightforward, but the synth washes and melodies occasionally suggest a greater undercurrent of anxiety or menace; see especially the opener “Foil,” or “Silverside.” The comparatively briefer track “Nine” is a lovely piece of ambient suspension, featuring the type of taut string-sounding synths that will crop up later in Autechre’s discography, albeit in more and more chopped and processed versions. Check out the seemingly effortless melodic and rhythmic interplay on display throughout the stunning “Further.” This album also features Autechre’s least computerized album cover, by far. Some might see this record as too much of a holding pattern from the debut, but I think it’s just as likely to see it as a refinement of the themes and moods of Incunabula; neither album, however, gave much hint of the sea change to be found in their third, and defiantly best, album, Tri Repetae.
Tri Repetae ++ (1995):
As suggested above, Tri Repetae is my absolute favorite Autechre album, and probably the one that would serve as the best introduction to the group for a virgin listener. Basically, the way I envision it, this album is something like a fulcrum for the rest of Autechre’s recorded output, in that it balances the warmth and mostly straightforward rhythmic tendencies of the first two records with the experimentation and more clinical sound of much of the group’s later work. This album still functions well as a whole, but whereas Incunabula and Amber felt very much texturally and sonically unified throughout their playing time, I have the very distinct feeling on Tri Repetae that each individual track creates its own sonic and textural world; the snarling bass flares of “Dael,” for example, introduce themselves right up front, but then Booth and Brown patiently introduce other elements in such a way that when all the layers of the song have been added, it presents an aural environment to just sit and get lost in. Check out, for example, the way that the main synth melody in “Clipper” is mixed in and out of the foreground in such a way that the melody plays almost like a hymn to the Doppler effect. “Leteral” is another strikingly brilliant sound-world; the initial rhythmic pattern sounds to me like pistons throbbing in a great steam-shrouded factory, but it is quickly joined by an understated organ and some gentle synth overtones which move that great factory into the clouds. Obviously, I could go on and on about this record, describing for you exactly how the constituent parts of each song combine to produce a collision of density and space, harmony and industrial rhythm, and so forth. Instead, why don’t you just go listen to this right fucking now and see/hear/feel for yourself. Play it fucking loud, please, and don’t make me ask twice. Oh, and if you do run out to the store and pick this up post haste (as you should), make sure to get the double-disc version Tri Repetae ++, in which the ‘++’ represents the two EPs (Anvil Vapre and Garbage, btw) collected on the second disc. Special notice should be given to the completely heavenly closing track from disc two, “Vletrmx21.” If robots could weep…
Chiastic Slide (1997):
Here, basically, is where shit gets a little weird. Opening track “Cipater” starts off not too dissimilar to the rough industrial-style beats of some of Tri Repetae and tosses on top a fairly charming half-melody, but then about halfway through, breaks down into what is probably the closest Autechre will get to producing a dub track. I think, based on some of what I’ve read elsewhere, that this album doesn’t rank super highly on the list of most Autechre fans, but it seems like a pretty self-evident progression from Tri Repetae, just pushed a bit further over the experimental edge. Most tracks still maintain a pretty straightforward meter (check out “Tewe” for the electronic equivalent of a jazz drummer playing crazy fills with a set of brushes), although the overall tone of the album is cooler, and somehow slightly more distant. Somewhat difficult to explain, I guess; think about it maybe like an android learning to make music by imitating the glorious moods and juxtapositions of the preceding album (especially gorgeous tracks like “Eutow” or “Leterel”) – the pieces are there, but stitched together in a slightly, well, altered fashion. It bears pointing out, though, that the marimba-esque melody of “Cichli” is one of Autechre’s best, as far as I’m concerned. “Hub” is probably the track rocking the most “other-ness” on here, and hints at greater bouts of rhythmic abstraction to come in the group’s future. Another interesting tidbit: Check out the gut-punch rhythm of “Calbruc,” and then compare it to the main beat of Björk’s track “Innocence,” from her Volta record.
Whoa. LP5 brings to full flower some of the experimental tendencies on offer in the previous two albums, and cranks the wackiness up the 11. Lead-off track “Acroyear2” kicks off at high-speed, something that previous Autechre productions hadn’t much done, and ends up locking into a groove that sounds like a simultaneously smooth and foreign drum and bass tune (actually, toss in some heavier drums, and this could actually pass for breakcore – it’s this era of Autechre that Aaron Funk A.K.A. Venetian Snares seems to have had in mind when putting together his excellent Huge Cylinder Chrome Box Unfolding album a few years down the road from this monster of an album). Aside from Tri Repetae, this album is the other that I would direct newer Autechre listeners to, because it definitely amped up the spindly, melodic, yet still freaked-out tendencies of their sound, while still staying at least somewhat close to recognizable beats and rhythms, without straying into the extreme abstraction of the next couple of full-lengths. This entire album is just remarkable to soak up, but a personal favorite is “Fold4, Wrap5,” which drops some seriously pretty tinkly bits over a constantly shifting tempo of gentle drumpad beats. Autechre had always stood apart as innovators, but if Tri Repetae saw them exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, LP5 sees them taking a stab at modifying the gravitational constant of the universe. Stunning, stunning genius.
Kinda beats me why this one is technically classified an EP, since my version gives a running time of just about an hour. Either way, most of this sounds like potential outtakes from LP5, but without the slightly derogatory connotation that sometimes attaches to such a comment. “Ccec” comes maybe the closest Autechre comes to featuring a real live vocal sample, though it’s snipped and sequenced well past even Prefuse 73 standards, until it’s just another percussive element. The tracks featured here continue to move away from the thicker and heavier beats of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide, and feature more of the hectically played taut-string synth melodies (I still can’t really come up with a better way to describe the sounds – occasionally it will sound like some sort of harp from the future, but not quite like any of that ridiculous nonsense Spock played in that hippie/cult episode of the original Star Trek…). More tasty electro goodness, then, and who’s complaining?
It is perfectly conceivable that certain listeners would have been able to follow Autechre to this point in their career, but might feel, with Confield, that they had lost the plot, jumped the shark, or whatever. This is, frankly, a really fucking peculiar record. Most of the sounds contained within it are not unprecedented for Autechre, but there is a real starkness and great distance in most of these songs. I happen to think it’s still a tremendous album (and in large part, precisely because of that stark quality), but it’s understandable that those of us out there who would still like, y’know, something like actual songs from their abstract electronic artists might be a bit disappointed. These are, nevertheless, some unconventionally beautiful and unique sound creations. You can almost start dancing to “Cfern,” for example, but try it for too long, and you’ll likely trip all over yourself. “Parhelic Triangle” sounds like a static-producing machine folding in on itself over and over again. Closing track “Lentic Catachresis” is another headfuck, starting off like a cast-off Tri Repetae skeleton track with bursts of organ fractals shot through it. The machines are talking to you, and they are trying to say, “We love you.”
Draft 7.30 (2003):
The random-beat-generating-software would seem to be in full effect by this point (though I’m sure more astute followers of Autechre history would be happy to tell me precisely when and where such software made its entree – I suspect it may have been somewhere between 1998 and 2000, but whatevs). Besides featuring probably the best Autechre cover art (I know the totally nondescript Warp-style no-information-whatsoever covers are part of an aesthetic, but seriously: BORING), Draft 7.30 takes great pleasure in keeping the listener at arm’s length, with little semblance of traditional song structure, recognizable rhythm (or at least any rhythm that lasts longer than a half-measure at a time), or even their trademark quirky melodic underpinning. These are generally cold, occasionally harsh soundscapes, which are fascinating, but can be quite off-putting if you’re not quite prepared for them. “IV Vv IV Vv VIII” is particularly sparse and hostile, perhaps akin to striking a punching bag filled with mercury over and over again with a set of rusting golf clubs. “61e.CR” lulls the listener in with a fairly straightforward 4/4 rhythm which actually stays fairly constant throughout the track, though the quieter bits toward the end introduce some softer percussion which seems to tug at the meter, while the album’s centerpiece, the 11-plus-minute “Surripere,” comes in with a warm, glitchy ambient texture not too far from much of Kompakt’s stable before it gradually pulls itself apart with harsher swaths of noise and deconstructed beats. It’s not really accurate to claim that this album is any more experimental than some of Autechre’s others, but for whatever reason, the mood created by Draft 7.30 seems much more clinical and detached than a lot of the rest of their canon; whether that adds to or detracts from the album’s appeal is up to you, humble listener.
Man, I straight-up HATE this album’s cover. I mean, seriously. Let your eyes soak it in – looks like either an uncool white suburbanite’s attempt at graffiti art, or like your slightly slow cousin’s elementary-school-computer-rendered portrait of Optimus Prime. Bums me right the fuck out, pretty much beyond all reason. Doesn’t help all that much that this might be among my least favorite Autechre albums, but at least the music is still about twelve thousand times better than that congealed-dog-vomit of an album cover. Now, when I say it’s one of my least favorites, what I really mean is that this album will still robotically rock your face off, but just to a slightly lesser degree than certain other Autechre albums. The extremely taut rhythms of “Ipacial Section” are a particular highlight, as is the laid-back funk of “Iera.” “Fermium” veers almost a little too close to Aphex Twin (circa Richard D. James Album, I’d say) for comfort, but pretty much the rest of the album is unmistakably Autechre. One of the biggest problems with the record is that several of the tracks seem to have a playing time which exceeds the amount of interesting ideas, such that a track starts off with a great juddering rhythm or spastic melodic bit, but then either grinds the same section on ad nauseum, or dissipates into a vague ambient/static haze. This actually works pretty well on the massive, nearly 16-minute closer “Sublimit,” which seriously bounces all over the fucking place, even rocking some vaguely house/disco-esque tones around the 4:00 minute mark, but too many of the other songs overstay their welcome. The machines are still talking to you, then, but now they are trying to say, “Hey, dude, mind if we keep crashing on your couch for another month?”
Three years between Untilted and Quaristice is the longest Autechre has taken between albums thus far in their career, and this record definitely sounds like they took a step back and did some reevaluation. The most immediately obvious characteristic of this album is that it contains a whopping 20 (!) tracks, only two of which actually exceed the five-minute mark in running time. Given my complaints about Untilted, one would think that this strategy would play like a godsend, but in fact, there are some drawbacks here as well. The great thing about this record is the sheer number of tracks, and the amount of stylistic diversity on offer; beatless, ambient opener “Altibzz” flows right into “The Plc,” which rocks some woozy, wobbly effects over a distant bass thud and the clang of soft steel-toe drums, coming across like an orthogonal reading of dubstep trends. In many ways, this album is reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Drukqs album, in that there’s such a wide range of things going on throughout that it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to, but doesn’t end up being nearly as memorable as earlier, slightly more cohesive records. These songs play a lot more like sketches, introducing a few ideas and running with them for a few minutes, before careening off into a completely separate stylistic direction. It is occasionally frustrating, but just as often thrilling, to hear Booth and Brown rooting around through so many sounds, moods, and textures. I am particularly fond of the nocturnal “Tankakern,” the “Rettic AC”-esque (from Chiastic Slide) static washes of “Fol3,” and the utterly disorienting “Lo.” There are great moments scattered throughout, but as I’ve suggested, they take a bit more patience to find. I also think that closing with the two lengthiest tracks, both of which are completely beatless dark ambient tunes, was a bit much, and winds things down on an anticlimactic note.
Released in February of this year, I’m still working on giving Autechre’s newest album the attention it deserves. In some ways, the band seems to have resolved the complaints I had about Untilted and Quaristice, in that Oversteps features the non-trivial number of 14 full productions, each with shorter running times than the occasionally bloated songs on Untilted, but each song feels much more like an actual song than the shorter mood pieces of Quaristice. To my ears, Oversteps hearkens back to the “album-ness” of earlier work like LP5 or Tri Repetae much more than any of Autechre’s other more recent albums. In fact, I think I would compare this album most frequently to LP5, because even though the actual textures are markedly different, both albums tend to focus a bit more on exploring various synth tones and textures, rather than the abstract and random beats and rhythms of the albums from, oh, let’s say Confield through Untilted. The chopped strings and harpsichord-esque “Known(1)” is an early highlight on this album, as are the delicate “krYlon” and the dark, thumping “D-Sho Qub.” Apart from the slightly brighter, less abstract textures, one of the most pleasant aspects of this newest album is the rediscovered sense of “almost rhythm,” by which I mean the ability to put together a rhythmic structure which seems fairly conventional and foot-tappable, but then to twist and prod it ever so slightly to throw the listener’s expectations subtly off course. When the beats eventually come in on the opening track “R Ess,” for example, just try to follow along. Your brain thinks that it has got a handle on the subdued, shuffling beat, but it refuses to conform to standard meter. Here, at last, the machines are speaking to you once more, and they are saying, “Come join us inside this black hole.” Oversteps makes your cosmic progress toward the oblivion of the event horizon a warm and comforting (yet still peculiar and alien) journey.
Until next time, then, friends, keep a warm fire burning in your cold, robot hearts.
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