| Manchester noise duo Autechre released their 10th album 'Oversteps' last week. Here, NIKHIL PATEL takes a careful, loving look back through the group's catalogue of inspired electronic music:
Sean Booth and Rob Brown bonded over a shared love of the raw sounds of early hip-hop and electro records, break dance and graffiti tagging antics. Inspired by this, as well as the burgeoning dance music and pirate radio scene in their Manchester surroundings, they moved onto their own productions.
They debuted with 1991’s Cavity Job 12”, a hardcore rave record on a short lived label, and an album of arcade game bleeps and beats released under their Lego Feet alias on Manchester’s Skam Records, to whom they would occasionally return with their Gescom side-project.
Autechre came into wider prominence once they moved to Sheffield’s Warp Records in 1993, and with whom the vast majority of their work resides. Their long standing relationship with the seminal electronic label allows them to ensure that all of their Warp back catalogue remains in print.
On Warp, initial releases magnified the otherworldly possibilities of electronic music, evoking alien landscapes and the movement of strange mechanical forms, but often retained a sweetness; like honey dripping over circuit boards. Delving further and further into the experimental, they remain vital electronic artists, whose work and approach to sound is now taught alongside Stockhausen at London’s Goldsmiths University.
With the release this spring of Oversteps, the 10th album in their near 20 year long recording career, a retrospective of Autechre’s brand of cerebral and cutting edge electronic music seems timely. These are 10 essential releases (all on Warp Records) to get your head around:
Incunabula LP (1993) - A necessary starting point is the duo’s first full length for Warp records, a release which followed their inclusion in Warp’s seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation, a post-rave showcase intended for home listening and which provoked the clunky term “intelligent dance music” (IDM).
The album title comes from the Latin word incunabulum, meaning something in its infancy. Rob Brown commented in 2008 that the material in Incunabula and follow-up album Amber sounded cheesy. This compilation of pre-existing tracks merely marks the departure point in a journey of electronic experimentation, which has since led into wild sonic abstraction.
Incunabula’s introductory tracks Kalpol Introl, Bike and Autriche are pretty enough to feature on any playlist of early IDM tracks, but they do not jump out as being particularly Ae-ish. Later tracks such as Windwind suffer from cyber-hippy tendencies and a lack of movement.
The nascent Ae sound becomes audible in the stunning four track run of Basscadet, Eggshell, Doctrine and Maetl, each one a variation of fragile, haunting melodies sliding over mechanistic club beats.
A mention too for the soulful Lowride, centred around a piano loop sampled from Miles Davis’ The Doo Bop Song, featured on the Mo’Wax label’s Headz compilation, another seminal release which this time showcased the beginnings of trip-hop.
Anti EP (1994) - Produced in reaction to the “anti-rave” clauses in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994, Anti EP is far removed from the usual notions of charity or protest records. All profits from this release went to the civil rights campaign group Liberty.
The Criminal Justice Act 1994’s Powers In Relation to Raves clause made it illegal for 10 or more people to gather on “any land in the open-air” to (potentially) listen to “music characterised by a succession of repetitive beats”.
A sticker on the cover of Anti EP reads:
“Warning. 'Lost' and 'Djarum' contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. 'Flutter' has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.”
The sublime Lost is morosely funky with its repetitive beats, like a chess computer forced to calculate hyper-advanced break dance moves.
Flutter, a ten minute masterpiece of dreamy complexities, sounds like normally constrained beats falling over themselves in delight, relishing the freedom to, well, flutter.
Basscad EP (1994) - This collection of remixes of Basscadet (from Incunabula) provides a sonically consistent introduction to the early Autechre sound, whilst also pinpointing an aversion to vowels and the space bar. Four variations, titled Bcdtmx, Tazmx, Basscasdubmx, and Basscadoublemx, exhibit Autechre’s roots in electro, hip-hop, industrial, dub and UK rave sound systems and their unique stylistic reshaping of these forms.
The results are soaked through with the heavy rain of the industrial North. Morphed into large mechanistic beings, breakbeats ring out of the cavernous echo chambers in the aftermath of emptied warehouses. Metallic clangs and submerged ambience coalesce into tensile forms, equally unsettling and enthralling with their menace.
Garbage EP (1995) - The opening track on the first of three releases in a strong year for Autechre, Garbagemx36, initially reminds of the ghostly dub-techno classics emanating from Berlin’s Basic Channel a few years earlier. Rather than stringing out a slowly shifting riddim over submerged bass, they allow skeletal beats to skirt underneath sinewy melodies and lush strings that tug you towards the closing 14th minute.
Piobmx 19 is the work out music for dystopian gyms. Bronchusevenmx 24 could be the echo-processed recordings of a tabla player, banging out cyclical rhythms of shifting time measurements on an electronic drum pad, whilst their vocal accompanist’s ragas shift in and out of an Aphex Twin lucid dream.
The EP closes with V Letrmx 21, a moving ambient piece, where a series of drones and aching chords soar above a beatless calm. It is noteworthy amongst Autechre's work for its truly soothing effect.
Anvil Vapre EP (1995) - Anvil Vapre is further proof of Autechre’s ability to make the mechanical sound organic.
The EP lurches straight into Second Bad Vilbel’s harsh industrial beats, whose thunderous attack is interjected with shards of rumbling static. Drone songs move under dissonant seismic waves.
Second Scout has surprisingly strong echoes of straight up Detroit techno, with its retro space-age funk. Second Scepe rides along schizoid machine-grooves, while Second Peng’s slower pace resonates with the rotary tension from the uncoiling of large metallic shapes.
Tri Repetae LP (1995) - With Tri Repetae, it feels like Autechre created a summary of all they had done before. There’s a precision to these tracks, which unravel in a systemic manner, providing a serene, uniform progression across the album, devoid of sudden jolts or industrial brutishness.
Track titles evoke the component parts of machines. One could imagine Tri Repetae as the original soundtrack to a future documentary on the manufacture of machines designed to perform beyond-human tasks.
Dael, Clipper, Rotar, Stud are audio footage from the factory floor. These beats are the sound of steel limbs locking in and out of motion. Drum loops shift in and out of phase like an assembly line’s rhythms. The sparkling Eutow shows off with sprightly grace and techno efficiency - a real treat and thoroughly essential.
Machine analogies aside, Tri Repetae retains an emotional core, and is amongst their most rewarding work from their “accessible” phase. Following this triumph, Autechre’s sound architecture moved onto ever more elaborate and previously unthinkable manifestations.
Chiastic Slide LP (1997) - Often cited as Ae's turning point, Chiastic Slide did away with any traces of dance culture, and is a much more experimental record. Taken as a whole it can be ascetic and alien, but there’s a pastoral charm in Chiastic Slide’s contemplative moods. It’s a valid suspicion that Warp label-mates, Boards Of Canada bit off large chunks of Chiastic Slide, while preparing their own much lauded debut (1998’s Music Has The Right To Children).
Chiastic Slide is the music of sci-fi cattlemen, sheep rearers and farmers. The opening Cipater has an almost folky second half. Rettic AC evokes the sound of fields of silicon-based crops swaying in the solar wind no longer buffered by Earth's magentosphere. Pule and Chicli are playful, while Recury is a sonic artefact of the decay and death throes from Tri Repetae’s once glistening factory. The percussion may still be crunchy and metallic, but its shine has dulled. This lack of sonic glossiness makes the bulk of this album a warm listening experience.
Peel Sessions (1999) - Formed of just three tracks taken from a 1995 live session recorded for BBC Radio 1’s legendary John Peel, this distillation is a good testing ground for anyone unfamiliar with Autechre.
Milk DX has a swampish stomp, disembodied stutter and an otherworldly melody. Inhake 2 throws the “wikki-wikki” chanting smurfs from the 80s electro classic, Newcleus’ Jam On It, into orbit around large bass reverberations, which rise and fall behind a clatter of malfunctioned electro-funk.
Drane, is a stunning ambient piece of insectile skitters covered by a glacial fog, dissolving at mid-point only to reform with increased density.
Draft 7.30 LP (2003) - After Chiastic Slide came the two follow up albums, LP5 and Confield. Considered by Autechre to be Tri Repetae’s true successor, LP5 sounds like a meshing of Chiastic Slide’s avant-garde tendencies with Tri Repetae’s pneumatic ability. Confield’s genius was making sound appear to be either decaying, liquefying or multiplying and from within this chaos some kind of futura-hip-hop could be heard.
Any fan hoping for a return to the melodic hooks in Autechre’s earlier work would be further disappointed when, with Draft 7.30’s release, Sean Booth said that "[rhythm] doesn't seem to limit us in the way it did when we first started”
Requiring a readjustment in “how” and “for what” we listen, Draft 7.30’s peculiar (de)compositions start to make sense after several listens. Moving even further into the extremes of experimental techno, Draft 7.30 is devoid of the usual reference points that helped decipher the music of Autechre’s previous phase.
It’s difficult to relate to these pieces by drawing on science fictions of a machine-dominated future or alien worlds . If there’s a cultural heritage here, it's closer to musique-concrete, free jazz and noise music. Treating Draft 7.30 as Autechre’s arrangements for a bizarro noise-improv-binary-jazz session helps describe tracks that are as indefinable as their titles are unintelligible.
Xylin Room is a piece for a duo improvising with treated double bass and keys. On 61e.CR the virtuoso percussionist and bassist skirt around each other until a trio forms halfway through the track, when joined by a space-clavinet. Surripere’s drummer impresses with a dexterity and inventiveness, while the sax limits itself to occasional low-frequency squawks. Jazz fans may agree that VL Al 5 is their condensed take on Kind of (Computer) Blue and P.:Ntil their Mwandishi moment.
Just as the hard-bop classics of the 1960’s jazz scene were mined for def beats by the hip-hop producers of the 1990’s, V-Proc throws down shimmering metal sheets of “tomorrow’s funk today” for future Bomb Squads to tear apart.
Those prepared to listen closely and openly will find much reward in Draft 7.30’s mysterious arrangements.
Quaristice LP, Quaristice (Versions) LP and Quaristice.Quadrange.Ep.Ae LP (2008) - Quaristice comes either as a stand-alone release, or a 2CD set with the alternate takes of Quaristice (Versions) attached. The download only Quaristice.Quadrange.Ep.Ae holds further related material, closing with the hour long Perlence Subrange 6-36.
A monolithic and exceedingly minimal piece, Perlence Subrange 6-36 is a series of microtonal shifts in distant echoes and drones, reverberating in infinite space. Listened to in a darkened room it makes for an immersive and dislocating experience. It brings to mind the “holographic” ambience of Eno’s equally lengthy Thursday Afternoon, where any small section contains the essence of the greater work’s slow evolution and repetition.
Sean Booth has commented that, "It seems to really, genuinely satisfy the sort of mission statement for ambient music without being what people would consider ambient at all."
With the three Quaristice releases totaling an immense 44 tracks with 4.8 hours of listening time, to absorb it all is an impenetrable task.
One tactic would be to collate the more ambient inspired pieces into a playlist of eerie Brain Eno/Aphex Twin-esque spaces capes.
A suggested tracklist would contain Altibizz, Paralel Suns, Outh9x from Quaristice LP, nu-Nr6d from the Japanese release of Quaristice LP, Altichyre, nofour from Quaristice (Versions) LP, and Perlence Suns, 9013-2, Perlence Losid 2, Notwotwo and Perlence Subrange 6-36 from Quaristice.Quadrange.Ep.Ae LP.
If Eno’s Apollo album evoked the astronaut’s literal and the spectator’s emotional weightlessness amidst the fanfare of the first lunar landings, with these ambient tracks Autechre have taken us much further outward to witness isolation in the distant and starkly cold reaches of (inner) space.
Throughout February and March Autechre released their new album, ‘Oversteps’.
[Main image: 'Oversteps' cover-art, © Autechre]
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