Beat and Variation
Autechre, the English duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, don't so much write songs as program ecosystems. Within electronica, where everyone says Autechre have spawned a genre unto themselves, their clopped rhythm strings and clipped melody shards epitomize anti-dance intellectual purism. But it's less odious to see them instead as ritualists who take their stewardship seriously. Artists who came of age before the Web, when cyberspace was imagined as a role-player's virtual home to be built up one coded brick at a time, Autechre are unfathomably intricate. The hope is that listeners will suspend disbelief inside musical multiplicity, feel life course through an inorganic landscape. Instead of transcendence, Autechre strive for viability. Like the framers of the Constitution, they dream about a machine that would go of itself.
Well, that's one metaphor for grasping these wizards of a genre founded on the partially rendered hypothetical. Also popular is the model of architecture: Autechre tracks, it is said, resemble the blueprints for buildings that could never actually be constructed. The word architecture is itself a near-anagram for the band's made-up name; Autechre frequently play with language this way, punning and mistranslating to render obliquely taxonomic idioms like "Zeiss Contarex," "Caliper Remote," and "Outpt." The code speaks to their willfully Apollonian approach to sounds others treat as an orgy waiting to happen, not to mention their love of a good puzzle. Autechre is itself abbreviated by the band down to Ae, suggesting both aesthetics and a need to jigger music's basic Table of Elements.
Conceptual frameworks are the easy part. Trying to convey or explain the music itself is a headache squared. Autechre usually refuse to try, and when they do, it comes out like this quote from a Brown interview: "I think there's quite a stark difference in Cichlisuite, there's lots of naked structures of actual, you know, sound generating elements, and in say Garbage, you'd have more, sortuv, obviously digital recording procedures, while a texture would be generated by the grain of a sampling frequency." Or they can talk tech, to wit Booth: "Much of the multiple LFO routings and the assigning of controllers to modulate controllers and so on, we can do on the EPS setting up quite elaborate patches on it really quickly."
Fans master the particulars better than I ever could, so let me extensively cite an astute Intelligent Dance Music webring review of EP7, the newest Ae: "The sonic dryness of Autechre's last full-length album, LP5, has largely faded away. Though this is no return to the analog sparkle of their older releases (such as Garbage and Amber) the sound here is everywhere widened by smooth reverb and echoes. In the better tracks the percussion is partially downplayed, marking a departure from the micro-programmed clicks of Cichlisuite. EP7 never approaches industrial as Chiastic Slide did, but the dirty digital noise and clutter from that album is back; albeit in smoother, more heavily processed form. . . . 'Netlon Sentinel' bursts with a positively wacko loop that sounds like a spoon-player clicking inside a tinfoil bag in an echo chamber. . . . It's another one of Autechre's slippery cadences, where we know it's repeating but can't figure out just where and how it manages to sound different every time."
That last line nails something. Autechre's modus operandi is beat and variation. They create Rube Goldberg contraptions of percussion, unlikely skitters through differing textures that repeat just often enough to establish themselves as grooves then switch tracks. As a sound it's hypnotic, a brain bath, particularly as your synapses reconfigure themselves to absorb rhythmic variations that can't possibly be absorbed. Fans of those robotic early rap instrumental tracks, Brown and Booth still felt impossibly distant from the communal origins of hip-hop. In a way, they've transposed into the atomized domain of art rock an African matrix, the view of music as an ongoing mind-body ritual held together by a drum pulse that speaks to those able to hear it. Yes, other technoids have followed suit, but no other body of work is so creatively worshipful of a nondance groove. And there's a scary after-effect: listening repeatedly to Autechre, it's possible to start imagining that no other music need exist.
It helps that they never stand still. "Crystel," on the 1992 ambient scene compilation Artificial Intelligence, and "Basscadet," the single from their first album Incunabula, were straightforward enough to gain British indie-chart attention. By the chiming, soaring Amber, Ae had found their unique sound, modulating the thwacks of electro to hiss the way aliens breathe in the movies. On the Anti EP, Autechre actually came out of the grotto for an instance, framing a blistering response to the U.K.'s Repetitive Beats law: "Flutter" shifts its rhythm signature every bar. A sleeve note read: "Autechre is politically non-aligned. This is about personal freedom." Tri Repetae, like Incunabula, emphasized in-your-face clank and radiation, though its American release included the Garbage EP, Ae's most ambient exploration to date. There've been several releases under the name Gescom, featuring Booth and Brown's collaborations with others. Chiastic Slide had Autechre's most complexly textured grooves, but they're deliberately static. The EP Cichlisuite (pronounced "sickly sweet") and last year's LP5 entrusted the rhythms to programmer algorithms in places.
EP7, which encompasses a two-part British release and is actually full-album length, is the first Autechre I've obsessed over. Compared to the more commonly beloved Amber and Tri Repetae Ae (revisited of late on a smooth, satisfying Peel Sessions EP taped back in 1995), it's much less tempted by pastoral or sci-fi hyperbole. And it's not etherealized-via-computer like its immediate predecessors. As with many artists who've been around a while though neither has hit 30 the two are taking a moment to get back to basics. Here, that means giving all the electronic sounds they've worked with textures as tactile as possible, then pushing them around with a rough touch. The heart of the album is the resultant scrape. If that seems unappealing, I'll summon one last analogy: a mature painter who accomplishes with a thick, emotive daub what earlier might have required a showy technique. Violating the cardinal dictate of pop, which always moves forward, Autechre have mastered their form.
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