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Rhythm is a funny thing.  For the avid music listener, then, I’d wager a fair sum that the way rhythms are internalized has a lot to deal with the way one experiences time.  And perhaps, even more so than a similar melody, or musical key, or instrumental timbre or anything else, it’s rhythm that can rightfully claim to be the preexisting undercurrent of raw musical material from which individual songs and artists only occasionally borrow, like drilling down through dry topsoil, through shale and limestone and dead rivers, only to hit, eventually – inevitably – on a current of time that speeds the whole world along with it.

That’s why, I suppose, these songs, which on their surface have nothing to do with one another, may actually be the same song in some meaningful sense.  At least, once you’ve caught that rhythm, you don’t hear it with your ears or see its sound waves with your mind’s eye – it works you from within, like your chest is a warm antenna pulling in signals from the center of the earth:

Gnarls Barkley, “Open Book”

Aphex Twin, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” (see especially the section from 3:04 onward)

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If you’ve ever spent much time writing album reviews, chances are you already know how much your appreciation of a record can change across multiple listenings.  I don’t think there’s any great rule to follow about how many times one ought to listen to something before trying to say anything reasonably articulate about it, but it’s also pretty safe to say that if one bashes out a review before the album has even passed the finish line, shit ain’t right.

This isn’t a lecture, though.   Maybe what online music journalism needs, in fact, are interpretive haikus, stream of consciousness fits of creative nonfiction, and album reviews written matter-of-factly about music which either does not exist, or has not been heard by the writer.  That’s your own business.  (Actually, now that I think about it, writing Reviews Of Nonexistent Albums sounds like a possibly worthwhile undertaking…)

I’ve been wondering, though, just why it is that our first impressions often change so much in the fullness of time.  Sadly, I’m sure many times, it’s because our first impressions are later realized to be out of step with the general consensus, and so we either consciously or subconsciously alter our opinion accordingly.  Still, even the most genuinely hermetically walled-off of us have been there.  We find that we are not the stolid rocks of constancy we once thought ourselves to be, and that even We, the cosmically ordained, are not impermeable in the face of the wending shuffle of time.

I’d like to propose a little diagnostic of the various ways in which, it seems to me, our opinion of an album can change from first to later listenings.  I’ve offered a few examples of my own under each category only by way of illustration, but I’m curious to see if there isn’t something systematic about these different types of records which leads them to be first and then later impressed upon us differently.
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Type 1: “The Winner”: Albums that you love when you first hear them, and which you continue to love subsequently.

– This is a pretty straightforward category, and obviously has very little to do with changed opinions.  Still, you know the type.  You spin it once, think, “Shit, that’s awesome!”  Then, you keep spinning it, and it just gets better and better.  I suspect most folks would place most of their favorite albums in this category, although I also suspect there are some closet Type 4s lurking in there…

Examples:
– Tough category to pick examples for, then, since there are so many albums to fit the bill.
– Doomriders, Darkness Come Alive.  This is just an absolute FUCKING MONSTER of an album that just gets better every single time I play it.  Hardcore?  Rock?  Metal?  Who gives a shit: Doomriders are here to tear you apart.
– Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness.  Basically, nothing can fuck with this album.  Ever.  This is one of the most evocative pieces of music I’ve yet to encounter in the wide world of metal.  Pure class.
– Lurker Of Chalice, Lurker Of Chalice.  I dig most of the stuff that Wrest has put out under the Leviathan name, but the Lurker Of Chalice album just has an atmosphere all its own.  Haunting and haunted, and soothing without being safe.

Do not try to fuck with this.

Type 2: “The Piece Of Shit”: Albums that you hate when you first hear them, and which you continue to hate subsequently.

– This is also a pretty straightforward category.  We’ve all been there, where we play something, suggest to our friends and acquaintances that it sounds like an old dog retching violently onto a turntable playing an old Alvin & the Chipmunks record, and leave it at that.  Days or weeks later, we are subjected again to this execrable document to the miserable state of the human condition, and contemplate inflicting bodily harm on the individuals responsible.

Examples:
– Again, there must be shitloads upon shitloads of albums in this category for me.  Maybe I’ll pick a few slightly less obvious examples, then:
– Suffocation, Suffocation.  I actually like a lot of Suffocation’s other stuff, but man, something about this record just rubs me right the goddamn wrong way.
– Aethenor, Betimes Black Cloudmasses.  Son of a BITCH this record is booooooring.  And it’s not like I automatically slag off anything drone-y or ambient; this one just pissed me off.
– Novembers Doom, Into Night’s Requiem Infernal.  I’m beginning to wonder if maybe this category (Type 2) isn’t especially filled with albums that have disappointed us.  I really liked the two Novembers Doom records which preceded this one, but ugh.  Nothing about this was appealing or convincing.

Hey, guys, that title? Completely meaningless nonsense.

Type 3: “The Jumped-The-Gun”: Albums that you love when you first hear them, but which you begin to hate upon subsequent examination.

– In some ways, this is the most interesting of these categories to me.  This type of reaction is for those albums that really blow you away the first time you play them, but then lose whatever vitality they seemed to have upon further listening.  It seems probable that this category is populated with albums that have some cache of novelty to spend, but seem hollow and insubstantial once that novelty has worn off.

Examples:
– Eluveitie, Slania.  I should have known better than to be impressed by this one, I suppose.  Still, the great glossy production and the superficial sheen of folk instrumentation were sufficient to distract me from the utterly subpar Gothenburg tedium that lurked within.
– Solefald, In Harmonia Universali.  I feel kind of badly about including this one.  I still really like Solefald, honest, I do, but geez, this album just wears on my nerves something awful.  It was the first record of theirs that I bought, and I was totally into it at first, what with the lyrics in like twelve different languages, and the quite off-kilter songwriting style.  The vocal style is what first started to grate on me, though, and now, every time this comes on, I just get bored and want to go fly a kite or something.  I’m much more about The Linear Scaffold these days.
– Megadeth, United Abominations.  I suppose I’m not the only one who got dragged into this.  By this point, I’m just sick of Mustaine in general, but I’ll admit it, I gobbled up this album like crazy when it came out.  I, like many of you, had been horribly burned by Megadeth in the past (Youthanasia, Cryptic Writings, and so forth), but had pretty much ignored the previous albums that been hailed as ‘returns to form’.  Don’t know why I believed that about this one, then.  I really dug it at first, because, well, you know, it was slightly fast, and had some solos and what not.  Over time, though, and especially with the release of Endgame (which is, scientifically speaking, five hundred times better than this turgid mess), I just cannot abide Mustaine’s self-righteous mumbling about the United Nations, the Middle East, and God knows what else.  Seriously, man: Rust In Peace or get the fuck out.

Not so much with the universal harmonies; sorry.

Type 4: “The Pleasant Surprise”: Albums that you hate when you first hear them, but which you begin to love upon subsequent examination.

– This is sort of the dark horse category, I think.  Every now and then, though, I’ll hear something for the first time that just sounds like absolute garbage.  I’ll shut it off, and maybe even chuck it out, in a fit of disappointed rage.  But then, some time later, it’ll come on again, and somehow I’ll hear it in a different light, and suddenly it clicks somehow.

Examples:
– Akercocke, Choronzon.  So, this is an example of how this categorization isn’t perfect.  Which is to say, I don’t think I ever straight-up hated this album, but I sure didn’t care much for it the first time through.  Over subsequent listenings, though, I came to appreciate it a lot more.  I still think the albums they’ve put out since then are superior – in particular, the magnificent Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone.
– The Ruins Of Beverast, Rain Upon The Impure.  Okay, in all fairness, this one is still my least favorite of the three Ruins of Beverast albums.  Nevertheless, given my slightly disgusting love for the Unlock the Shrine album, my disappointment the first time through this album was fucking massive.  As near as I’ve been able to figure it out, though, my problem was basically with my expectations for the production.  Rain Upon The Impure has one of quietest, most distant sounding black metal productions I’ve heard in some time, which is extremely offputting, unless (and this is a crucial unless) you crank it REALLY LOUDLY.  Doing so finally allowed me to appreciate this album as still quite excellent.
– At The Gates, Slaughter of the Soul.  This is sort of the reverse case as with Eluveitie above.  First few times I heard this album, I wrote it off as a bit dull and not particularly creative.  Maybe I lacked the necessary historical context at the time, or maybe I just hadn’t listened to this album at a sufficient volume.  I’d like to think I appreciate this album exactly the right amount now, which is that this is a complete shit-kicker of an album that destroys anything else in the style.  Unfortunately, the influence of this album has been far more malign than inspired.  Hardly their fault, though.

Survey says: Better than you think!

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Thoughts?  Which albums have you completely dismissed out of hand, only to find out later that you couldn’t bear to do without them?  Or, alternately, which albums are your great shames; y’know, the ones that you loved and loved to death and couldn’t get enough of, and then, all of a sudden, you figure out, “Hey, this really fucking sucks”?

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I’ve been thinking lately about the sheer level of inundation that we followers of music face these days.  In many ways, I think this is a fantastic development, particularly with the healthy state of the underground’s manifold scenes and subcultures.  Maybe, on the other hand, that supposed strength is really just a reflection of the crippling weakness of the traditional music industry.  Important questions, but not exactly what I’m concerned with here.

You see, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that I don’t really know my music all that well.  Sure, I know a whole lot about music, but what I’m thinking is, basically, holy shit, I have got so much different music at my disposal each and every minute of every day that there is no way I can possible distinguish between it all.

To that end, I’m forcing myself to do a blind listening test.  I’ve collected all the metal in my iTunes onto a playlist, and I am going to put it on random, turn off my computer monitor so as to disallow any cheating, and then attempt to identify the first ten songs that come up on the playlist.  Find my running commentary below, with the actual results in brackets below each guess.  See you on the other side.
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1.  So, this is a pretty tasty morsel right here.  When it first played through, I was thinking it was something along the lines of the melodic death metal attack of God Dethroned.  Now that this chorus of ‘Stigma Diabolicum’ kicks in, however, I’m pretty sure that this is Austrian black/death metal horde Belphegor.  Definitely from one of their more recent albums, but I sure as hell couldn’t tell you which one.

I’ll take a stab at it, and say I think it’s from that album whose goddamn name escapes me at the moment, but not the most recent one (Hexenwahn whatever), nor from Bondage Goat Zombie, so their third most recent.

[It was: Belphegor, “Stigma Diabolicum,” but that IS from Bondage Goat ZombiePestapokalypse IV was what I was thinking of, but I was wrong to do so.  Anyway, I’m still counting that one as correct.]

2.  Hmm, I’m at quite a loss on this one.  It starts off with some black noise-ish segments, before kicking into some seriously crypt-kicking production, low echoing death howls, and a generally chaotic riff-and-drum attack.  My best guess is that this is from Weapon’s Drakonian Paradigm album.

[It was: Mitochondrion, “Wraithlike,” from Archaeaeon.  Definitely haven’t spent enough time with that record, but I don’t think that Weapon guess is too far off.]

3.  Son of a bitch this is all going to be embarrassing.  This starts off all jangly and reverb-y, so I’m thinking definitely 90s black metal.  But, shit, those vocals are all death gurgly, plus there’s a total Ihsahn howl in there somewhere.  It’s not Emperor, but it might be one of those classic mid-90s black/death hybrids like Dawn or Sacramentum.  I suppose it’s also possible it’s Naglfar or something like that, but the death influence seems a bit too strong for that.

Fuck, I’ve got tons of wild guesses, but no great ones.  Vocals now sound like Jonas Renske’s on Bloodbath.  Hmm.  Maybe I’m forgetting some old more straight-ahead Katatonia side project?  Anyway, I’m going with my first instinct, which was Dawn, from the Slaughtersun record.

[It was: Aeternus, “Dark Rage,” from Shadows of Old.  So, I was totally on the right track with that ‘classic but underappreciated black/death hybrid from the mid- to late 90s’ jag.  Just turns out that I am no better than all the rest at appreciating Aeternus.  Killer tune, although I prefer their first two records.]

4.  Crazy chamber music intro.  Is this from the new Sigh?  Oh, wow.  Embarrassing.  I’ve just mistaken Serj Tankian’s live, all-orchestral run through of his solo album Elect the Dead for Japan’s finest psychedelic black metal blasters.  Apologies to everyone involved.  Anyway, this, for sure, is Serj Tankian.  Tracks called “Money,” I think.

[It was: Serj Tankian, “Money,” from the Elect the Dead Symphony.  Clearly an unqualified win, there, but I kinda want to shave off some points just for thinking it was Sigh.]

5.  Ah, thankfully an easy one on which I will not embarrass myself.  This is Isis.  Or, at least, this is one of the tracks from the double-disc collection of reinterpretations of songs from Isis’ landmark 2002 (?) album Oceanic.  Couldn’t exactly tell you which track this is, but it’s one of the mellower ones, currently playing around with some nice organ tones, and then throwing Aaron Turner’s hoarse bellows out in the middle of this sparse instrumental expanse.  Very cool to hear this fantastic album broken down into its constituent pieces.

[It was: Isis, “The Other,” as interpreted/remixed by James Plotkin, from the Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations compilation.  Success.]

6.  Whoa, that’s a harsh fucking contrast.  At first I thought this was Ildjarn, such is the hideous level of lo-fi noise emanating from my speakers at the moment.  On further consideration, though, my best guess is that this is very early Emperor, from the self-titled/Wrath of the Tyrant CD reissue.  And yet, and yet…  Damn, I’m second-guessing myself something fierce now.  Nope, sticking with Emperor.  Damned if I know the song, though.  Shameful.

[It was: Belketre, “Demzreyavbtre Belketraya,” from Ambre Zuerkl Vuorhdrevarvtre.  SON OF A BITCH.  Of course there is absolutely no reason for you to believe me now, but up there, when I wrote “I’m second-guessing myself something fierce now,” I absolutely was going to say “This sounds like it could also be some of that LLN stuff, maybe Belketre or Vlad Tepes.”  Fuuuuuuck.  Sorry Ihsahn, sorry Norway, sorry France.]

7.  Man, am I really making a poor showing of this.  At first blush, this track sounds like something tribal-ish and noisecore-y (adjectives are not my strong suit this morning).  Gets a bit more blasting, and then when the vocals kicks in, I’m fairly certain that’s Steve Austin’s coruscating howl, so I think this is Today is the Day.  Now that I think about it, that makes good sense, since I think this is from when TITD had Bill and Brann from Mastodon in the band.  So, again, I’ve got no clue on the track title, but I think this is Today is the Day from In the Eyes of God.  Fingers crossed.

[It was: Converge, “Letterbomb,” from When Forever Comes Crashing.  Wow.  Just, wow.  I totally thought this was Converge at first, but then I gradually convinced myself that those vocals were not, in fact, Jacob Bannon but were, instead, Steve Austin.  Shit.  Still, goes to show that either Converge can pull off some fucking metal sounding production earlier on, or that Today is the Day were never as metal as one thought.]

8.  Extended instrumental intro section makes song identification a bit tricky, folks.  Let’s kick in some fucking metal, eh?  Oh, that was the whole song?  Well, fuck you very much.  I don’t know, man.  I literally have NO CLUE what this is.  I’m also about 100% sure that this is NOT a song by The Ocean, but that’s what I’m going to guess anyway.

[It was: Tombs, “Story of a Room,” from Winter Hours.  Man, that sucks.  I really love that record.  Out of context, I guess it’s a lot trickier to match guitar tone to artist.  Still, I knew it wasn’t The Ocean.  Just had to put any old shit down.]

9.  This is a pretty nimble, black/folk attack.  My first inclination is to go with Borknagar.  Yep, there’s good ol’ Vintersorg.  Pretty unmistakable timbre on that dude.  I suppose this could be Vintersorg (the project) as well as Vintersorg (the man), but I think his solo(ish) stuff never got quite so black as this.  So, I’m going to go with Borknagar.  Let’s see, when did Vintersorg join?  I’m going to hazard a guess that this track is from the Empiricism album.

[It was: Borknagar, “The Genuine Pulse,” from Empiricism.  Awesome.]

10.  This is Mastodon.  For sure.  That vaguely Southern-tinged finger-picked acoustic intro was a pretty fast giveaway.  But, sadness of sadness, I’m wavering as to which album this is from.  At first, I was thinking maybe this was from Crack the Skye, given its quite mellow character.  But, hmm.  Damn, this is shameful.  Still, now I’m maybe 80% confident that this is the closing track from Leviathan, which is called, I believe, “Joseph Merrick.”

C’mon, Mastodon, can’t you help a brother out?  Sure would be nice to close out this cavalcade of fuck-ups and metal failures with an unabashed WIN.

[It was: Mastodon, “Pendulous Skin,” from Blood Mountain.  Sweet fucking houndstooth pajamas.  So, despite being totally dead-on about Mastodon, turns out the two albums I was wheedling back and forth between were both the WRONG FUCKING ALBUM.]

(11.  As I was finishing up typing some of these comments, Mastodon faded out, and in kicks the inimitable vocals of Phil Anselmo from Down’s first album, NOLA.  Thanks, dude, for giving me another confidence booster.  Track’s called “Losing All,” but I can’t claim credit, as Anselmo actually tells you that.)

Okay, now it’s time to turn the monitor back on and see just how shittily I’ve done.
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So, I’m giving myself five out of ten.  I know I had the album wrong on a bunch of those, but I’m pleased enough to have just identified the artist correctly half the time.  And honestly, that’s quite a lot better than I thought I would do at this.

The whole point, though, is not to simply pat myself on the back, or subject myself to an extreme bout of self-castigation.  Instead, I think this is really indicative of something.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I have a feeling that I’m not alone in being in the thrall of the unending pursuit of novelty in music.

I just think, maybe, that it’s time we recognize at what cost this ragged, wide-eyed pursuit must come.

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Hello, friends.  Not too much is shaking ’round Spinal Tapdance HQ today, but I was thinking that maybe I’d like to send a mixtape to each and every one of you.  But then, of course, real life intrudes.  Logistics, &c.  The mind boggles.

So, please accept this poor substitute; namely, a “mixtape” in the form of a whole mess of YouTube links.  Still, these are some of the jams that have been helping me beat the heat around here.  Enjoy!

1. Amorphis – “The Castaway” (1994)

2. Dream Theater – “Stargazer” (Rainbow Cover) (2009, original 1976)

3. Sleep – “Dragonaut” (1993)

4. Unearthly Trance – “God Is A Beast” (2008)

5. Swans – “I Remember Who You Are” (1989)

6. Devin Townsend – “Material” (2000)

7. Madder Mortem – “Formaldehyde” (2009)

8. Anaal Nathrakh – “Do Not Speak” (2004)

9. Neurosis – “Locust Star” (1996)

10. Nick Drake – “Cello Song” (1970)

Please have a (mostly) Very Heavy Metal Wednesday.

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So, I’m two days or so late with this update, but presumably you are all just as giddy with anticipation as I for Iron Maiden’s new album, titled The Final Frontier.  Official news has final broken on an August 16th release date (which I can only assume/hope will translate into an August 17th release date here in the States), along with this frankly bitching cover art:

In space, no one can hear you headbang

This August release date, unfortunately, is well beyond the end of Maiden’s summer US tour (currently under way, and to be attended by yours truly in mid-July), but the band has put the album’s first single, “El Dorado,” up on their website for free download, so I would recommend dropping pretty much whatever puny thing it is you may be doing and directing yourself directly to this press release on their website for directions on downloading the single.  Frankly, if you don’t have at least seven minutes to devote to heavy metal today, I don’t even know what you think you’re doing around here.  Plus, the single download comes with this exclusive comic-art-inspired image:

"Fuck yes," is the basic conclusion you must reach

Looks a little bit Dr.-Manhattan-on-Mars-in-Watchmen, and a little bit Lord-Weird-Slough-Feg’s-Hardworlder, but also looks one hundred per cent bad-ass.  QED.

Anyway, go check out the track for yourself.  It’s not the snappiest single ever, but it seems like it will probably make for a really solid album track, and it’s got a really tight solo-trading section.  Plus, it comes in and ends on a totally heavy metal free-fill section, so it seems perfectly crafted for dropping seamlessly into their current live set.

Up the fuckin’ irons, folks.

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Altar Of Plagues, Tides (2010)

What are the Irish always so fucked off about, I wonder?

Following fairly hotly on the heels of last year’s excellent debut album White Tomb comes this hefty (36 minutes) EP from the Irish black metal band Altar Of Plagues.  Another of the almost uniformly-excellent bands on Profound Lore’s current roster, Altar Of Plagues wields a meditative, dense fusion of elemental black metal and the drawn-out song structures of insert-your-favorite-variety-of-“post-“-influenced-metal-here.  This EP, which I seem to recall reading was written on the road (the band thanks the Roadburn Festival in the liner notes), is a nice little teaser for future efforts, and thus is not quite up to the high standard set by White Tomb, but doesn’t quite seem as though it was intended to be.  To put it another way, I think that this band’s style is generally better-suited to the album-length statement, but these two tracks certainly show no precipitous drop in quality.

Of the two lengthy songs on offer here, I think opener “Atlantic Light” comes off slightly better, in large part due to its meatier feel.  (Somewhat ironic, innit, that the track “Atlantic Light” comes off as all-around heavier than the slightly more spacious “The Weight Of All”?)  The track kicks off with a nearly depressive black metal-styled plod, which eventually locks into that stretched-out, black metal/post-rock groove the band lived in so comfortably on previous releases.  The comparison is probably a bit played-out by now, but these guys probably sound closer than anyone else to the pissed-off progeny of Wolves In The Throne Room and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  “Atlantic Light” is also notable in the vocal department for throwing in some sludgey/noisecore-styled bellowing, which very nicely complements the more traditional post-BM rasping.  These touches, though slight, might even give the band a bit of crossover appeal to fans of the somewhat spacier cast of the sludge/doom/hardcore/post-fucking-whatever spectrum (particularly Minsk, Rosetta, or Mouth of the Architect).

“The Weight Of All” touches on a somewhat wider palette of the band’s sonic and textural repertoire, perhaps unsurprisingly given its nearly 20-minute running time.  Some of the nicest songwriting touches crop up towards the end, where the band goes from washes of ambient/noise drones, into a carefully-paced section of blasting, and then finally into a great momentum-gathering final push of double bass-led gravity.  This is a band which really takes its time developing its ideas, which may require a bit of patience from the listener, but offers a fine contrast to the current glut of tech/death blast-athons.  While we’re on the subject of blasting, the sections of blast-beating are generally few and far-between on this release, but when they crop up, especially in the penultimate  movement of “The Weight Of All,” they have a pleasantly organic, loose, and almost shambolic quality, perhaps attributable to the exceptionally rattle-y snare drum.  Where this slightly off-kilter blasting might sound sloppy if attached to your more garden-variety Satan-and-frostbitten-nipples black metal, I find it carries the the suspended, droning melody of these songs rather nicely.

The production on this EP is quite a bit muddier than on White Tomb, but for some reason it really works well with the songwriting.  The crisp, clear production of the full-length worked well for the band’s sound as well, so I don’t know if the slightly dirtier tone here works only because of the few touches of sludge vocals thrown in, or maybe just because this whole release has the feel of a really promising young band out on the road, impatient to get some new ideas thrown down to tape before the moment passes; regardless, this sounds much more live, and really puts the listener in direct conversation with the mournful hue of these patient, well-crafted songs.  All in all, though I’d much rather hear another full-length from this Irish band, these two songs whet the appetite nicely until the crepuscular, creaking world they apparently inhabit inspires them to further feats of sorrowful, avant-garde bleakness.

Overall rating: 75%, light & weight.

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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.

Incunabula
(1993):

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.

Amber (1994):

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.

LP5 (1998):

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.

EP7 (1999):

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?

Confield
(2001):

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.

Untilted (2005):

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?”

Quaristice (2008):

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.

Oversteps (2010):

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.
-d

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