THE SHAPE OF A SOUND by Peter McIntyre

Manchester duo Sean Booth and Rob Brown met one another through a mutual friend in 1987, the year electro's death throes gave birth to hip hop and the musical map changed forever. Fifteen and seventeen year olds respectively, they discovered they had virtually identical record collections, a mutual love of breakdancing and a shared history of BMX biking. They immersed themselves in the burgeoning hip hop culture and ran with the local graffiti gangs - Manchester, Rochdale and the surrounding areas still bear the marks of their tagging skills. Then they began to switch off hip hop and onto early acid before embracing the more industrial sounds of Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave. It was here that they discovered what had been missing from hip hop: the electronic sound. So they bought a drum machine and began filling in the gaps themselves - plugging the holes in their collective imagination with strange musical shapes.
Both had been experimenting with sound since they were young, especially Sean, whose grandfather had given him an old reel-to-reel, on which he'd cut up TV recordings. At the time they met, he'd progressed onto a cheap Casio sampler and Rob had a Roland 606. Neither of them were interested in conventional music as such. They had these strange sounds swimming through their subconscious's; what they wanted to do was give them solid form.
Gradually, they started to make a name for themselves, and an interview on a local pirate radio station gave them a chance to host their own radio show - something they still do now with the weekly Disengage on Manchester's Kiss 102 FM. Amongst their favourite records - Unique 3, DHS, early Radioactive Lamb - they'd slip in one of their own tentative experiments and wait for the feedback. Suitably encouraged by the reception, they released a single, Cavity Job, under the name M.Y.S.L.B. Productions in late 1991. It did well enough but unfortunately, as with so many others at the time, the duo fell foul of record company rip-offs. Bloodied but unbowed, however, and inspired by the success of LFO from neighbouring Leeds, they sent a demo tape to Warp Records. Within twelve months, they found themselves alongside such luminaries as The Black Dog and Aphex Twin on the seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation, released towards the end of 1992. Even amidst such distinguished company, however, Sean and Rob stood out. Side-stepping such traditional influences as Kraftwerk, Detroit and Eno, and name checking instead Mantronix, Afrika Bambaata and the Miami Bass scene, their two tracks, The Egg and Crystel, seemed to contain no external reference points whatsoever. Those internal sounds were beginning to take shape in the outside world.
Autechre's debut album, Incunabula, was released in November 1993. Its' multi layered sleeve, a monochrome abstraction of typography and geometry, seemed as close to a description of the music contained within as any words. An artfully designed work, ascetic yet aesthetic, fluid yet angular, it was clearly greater than the sum of its' intricately constructed parts. Descriptions and comparisons were becoming meaningless. Rob and Sean started describing their music simply as "Autechre". It's still the only truly accurate word to use.
The last of Warp's Artificial Intelligence artist albums, and the pinnacle of the series, Incunabula entered the UK Indie charts at Number 1, as did the 10" box set of Basscadet remixes, which followed a few months later (the only occasion on which the duo have taken an album track for single release).
At about this time, Rob and Sean began to develop their live work, a process which they have refined to the point now where they're arguably the most innovative live electronic act in the UK. Forsaking any reliance on visuals or effects, as is the norm, they choose to concentrate on only one thing: the manipulation of sound. Utilising special software, they can physically change the sample data live. Rather than merely layering a few sounds over a pre-programmed mix, they can, in Sean's own words, "crawl right into the machine and fuck about with it from the inside". Shaping sound, the physical manipulation of an intangible element, has never been more apparent than in their live performances.
In a seemingly rare moment of external influence, Autechre's first musical foray into 1994 was the Anti EP, written in response to the government's draconian Criminal Justice Bill (later Act). Its' centrepiece, Flutter, may well have been a direct response to the main thrust of the bill: a 10 minute masterpiece of non-repetitive beat restlessness, but it was about as far from a traditional protest record as you could get (despite being the first record to donate all its' profits to the charity, Liberty). For Sean and Rob, the external event was no more than source material for them to work with, saving them the task of dredging material up from their inner experience. It's the same logic that they have apply to the much lauded remix work they have carried out over the last three years for artists such as St Etienne, DJ Food, Beaumont Hannant and Japanese pop duo, Softballet. The diversity of these artists is irrelevant. Little, if anything, of the original remains. The results are unrecognisable, even to the artists themselves.
The end of 1994 bought the eagerly awaited release of the duo's second album. If Incunabula saw Sean and Rob present their music as a series of jagged edged landscapes, Amber saw them smoothing out the edges and delivering an aural bit map every bit as contoured as the natural beauty of the beachhead that graced its' cover. In fact, in its' ebb and flow, its' constant forming and reforming, it resembled nothing less than a gently rolling sea of sound, the calm, melodic undercurrents countered by the bombardment of cross rhythms, slightly below the surface of the mix, hinting at the ominous dangers lurking deep beneath the surface. As with the real sea, all sense of perspective, any notion of an event horizon, was rapidly being lost. The more you focused, the less distinct the environment became. Sean and Rob's sources were coming from ever deeper within them: the shape of their music was beginning to blur at the edges. A successful UK tour with LFO (supporting them, ironically) and Mark Broom cemented their reputation as liquid sculptors.
1995 saw the release of two EPs - three if you count The Sound of Machines Our Parents Used, a collection of warped electro released on the Clear label under the artist name Gescom. It wasn't the first time the name had broken cover. An EP of that name had been released the previous year on a small independent label. A further release surfaced at the beginning of 1996 on Germany's highly respected Source Records. Whether or not it actually is Autechre remains a mystery.
Rob ambiguously describes the project, which is a shortened version of Gestalt Communications, as "us not being Autechre", adding cryptically with regard to the Clear release, "it might not even be us on the record". A conspiracy taking shape, perhaps. Of the two official Autechre EPs released that year, Garbage forsook the surface calm of Amber and headed for the murkier depths, moving ever further into abstraction. Anvil Vapre, released as prelude to their third LP, saw Rob and Sean in abrasive mood, producing four tracks of dark, distorted rhythms, phase-shifting loops and drifting fragments of melody. The linearity of their albums had always been counterbalanced by the more experimental edge of their singles, but this was Autechre at their most extreme: a singular journey into the hinterlands of brutal beauty; a trek no-one had made before. Its' sonic extremes were only matched by the critical reaction meted out upon its' release.
The reaction to Autechre's third album, released in the smoking vapour trail of Anvil Vapre, in October, was unanimously ecstatic. Undoubtedly their masterpiece to date, Tri Repetae was a record that completely distorted the listener's sense of perception. It was a hall of mirrors in sound, an experience akin to wandering through one of those fairground houses where all the floors, walls and ceilings are at the wrong angle. Strange metallic clanks, drum loops shifting in and out of phase and, all the while, sonorous muted melodies of the kind you hear in your dreams. Your bad dreams. Described variously as "a random journey around the extreme edges of electronica", "hardly human" and working in "unnamed territory, where all electronica sub-categories seem superfluous", it was clearly a record that represented a milestone, not merely in Autechre's career, but in UK electronic music as a whole. Critics voted it into the Melody Maker Top 50 Albums of the year, and influential future music magazine, The Wire placed it at the top of their 1995 electronica chart.
Tri Repetae heralded Autechre's first venture into the world of video, made in collaboration with Chris Cunningham, a friend of Sean's, a model-maker whose credits included in Alien 3 amongst others. An accompaniment to the single's opening track, 2nd bad Vilbel, the results were not widely seen, although stills from the short film can be viewed on the cover of Anvil Vapre. It was a true visual representation of the duo's sound: a multi-layered collage of strange shapes; organic yet mechanical; seemingly random, sometimes ordered; disparate one moment, interlocked the next. Chaotic in close-up, beautifully ordered in the wider picture. A vision like nothing we've ever seen before, yet one that seems strangely familiar - perhaps from deep within our own subconscious minds.
Exploring the edges. Skimming the surfaces. Existing in the space between the planes. Autechre's music has always been an attempt to give solid form to those most nebulous of thoughts that float through the deepest recesses of their psyches. For this most visual of musical duos, the gap between the covers of Incunabula and Anvil Vapre may seem little more than one of colour. In sonic terms, the leap they have made is beyond measure. That is why Tri Repetae sports nothing but greyness on its' sleeve - a total absence of the visual. Sean and Rob have finally fashioned their sound into its' purest form - one that is simply undefinable in concrete human terminology. 'Chiastic Slide' is the next stage of their musical odyssey.
Written by: Peter McIntyre