Autechre: Draft 7.30 (from the author of 'Rough Guide')
Confield stands in retrospect as one Autechre's best records. It's certainly not their most widely beloved or even accepted album, but it represents an important step in that it clears the slate for their entire catalog.
I suppose it was about time. They've become an influence not just in their own lifetime, but in less than a decade after starting out. In almost every new electronic record I hear, I can spot their fingerprints somewhere. For all the praise given to Richard James, it's clear that Autechre has had the greatest effect in steering the electronic scene toward what it is today. The influence is etched into the very landscape, so subtle and pervasive that it's often not even noticed, but taken for granted as the way things just sound. The whole "glitch" genre practically sprouted from the debris of Lp5 and Ep7, and you can hear their methods echoed in just about any act I can think of, from Boards of Canada to Dntel or L'usine. I still can't think of Brothomstates as anything but a very sharp Lp5 cover-act, and Funckarma's Solid State emulate's Tri Repeatae's atmosphere so well that it comes off almost as a sequel in some alternate reality (in the case of the Funckarma, that's a compliment).
So far, I haven't heard anyone try to emulate Confield, though I'd love to see them try.
Something about it was so far from their normal methodology. It was the polar opposite of the relentless and mechanical Lp5, and although stylistic shifts are nothing new to them, it still came off as a huge departure in its own right. Part of it was the fact that the record was so disjointed. Individual tracks didn't just vary in timbre, but in the very underlying elements. The whole thing was organic, though in a menacing and surly way, and for once, they were somehow imprecise in their methods. Sounds and motives were cut down to their most infentismal elements and reassembled seemingly at random at times. Nothing like it had been done at the time, and to the best of my knowledge, nothing has since. All expectations had been dashed and proven irrelevant, and I for one gave up even guessing what they next record would sound like.
So, where does Draft 7.30 come in? Well, at first it seems like a step backwards toward the cleaner and more playful feel of Lp5. Many saw this as a sign of complacency or perhaps a dearth of inspiration. First impressions with Autechre are often off the mark, though, and this was no exception.
The pallete here is a mixture of elements from both Lp5 and Confield, but what they've done with it is different. The cut-obliterate-coalesce model that shows up on Confield is present here, but in a more controlled form. Again, I'm reminded of Ligeti's micro-tonal stuff, but instead of clouds of pitch, they're using clouds of timbre, each wisp like a finely-weaved and tightly-controlled fractal.
Melody, though certainly not absent from Confield, has a more overt role in Draft 7.30, as does a sense of unified texture. While the last record felt like a collection of only loosely-related pieces, Draft 7.30 feels like an actual album again, something with a narrative flow, perhaps a novel to the last record's collection of set-pieces.
And it all starts with fourteen seconds of silence.
Silence. Then a scrawl of static enters and forms the barest outline of a melody. The drums play two separate patterns against each other, sounding like blocks of wood pounding at various pitches and oddly resounding. The melody claws and fights its way to the foreground, stretching and vibrating like a strand of highly-tensed phone wire.
Then, just as it all seems to come together, it begins to fall apart. The heavy downbeat starts drifting into unsteady waters and everything picks up the hum and quiver of the melody, creaking and groaning under some sort of surface stress. At 3:40, neutral chords appear and hang motionless in the mix as percussion parts drop in and out, wearied but still vying to be heard. The overexposed brightness of the initial melody is gone and replaced by a a static-riddled minor-key motif, and the drums collapse into a soup of rhythm similar to "Pir."
As an opener, "Xylin Room" picks right up where "Lentic Catachresis" closed out Confield. The tones are the same, but somehow their execution is different. There's more air in the mix, and rather than a sense of panic, it engenders a queasy sort of exhiliration. Instead of the pieces piling together into a wavering edifice, they've managed to keep a sense of forward motion, even in the spots where it seems to sputter to a standstill.
Even though it's deceptively submerged beneath layers of finely-managed chaos, the large-scale structure of the track is recognizable, though far different from Autechre's usual methodology. Rather than simply layering elements upon each other over time and letting them work in relation to each other, they've chosen to pursue a more linear direction. Many of the elements from the beginning of the track are either absent by the end, or they've transformed so much as to be unrecognizable. The experience is more like taking a journey than examining an odd structure. It's a subtle but major change.
IV VV IV VV VII
While "Xylin Room" is a tightly-wound forward hurtle, the second track is an exercise in stasis. It opens with a modulated wind noise and an almost half-hearted snare-bass-drum pattern that never seems to find a beat. Nothing holds together for more than a few seconds. Extraneous sounds mingle at random to create brief motives, but there's no overall structure beyond a vague tonality implied by the strings.
"IV VV IV VV VII" reminds me strongly of FSOL's Dead Cities in that it seems to survey some decaying urban landscape where the radio stations are still churning out signals that all blur together at night. There's a sense of detached wide-scale drama, but it's more about foreboding than the actual event.
The clouds break abruptly in the third track. A surprisingly conventional and aggressive backbeat is outlined with a skeletal bassline, harkening back to "Laughing Quarter" in tone, although the tempo is slower and more deliberate. At the three-minute mark, the drums drop out, replaced by a sparse scurrying pattern and a quivering melodic figure similar to the strings on "Eidetic Casein."
What makes this track so unique is that it's almost an anachromism. It comes close to being, well, standard, and although it's adorned with the same subsurface interference as the rest of the record, it seems to be referencing their earlier, pre Lp5 material. Unlike "IV VV IV VV VII," it has a clear direction, and it follows their typical A-B-Coda structural model straight into their familiar drumless fade-out for the last minute.
"Tapr" is another transition piece. A patter of backmasked percussion mingles with a vague pieces of a drum loop, while reverb-drenched string and organ samples flutter about like random frames cut from a film. Like "IV VV IV VV VII," it has no clear direction, yet it's somehow engaging in and of itself, and it serves the funtction of softening the palette between the harshness of "6IE.CR" and the deceptive serenity of "Surripere."
The fifth track serves as a centerpiece for the album. It starts out with a bouyant, gliding beat overlaid with hazy drones. It takes its time setting up an atmosphere similar to "Uviol" for the first three minutes. A rattling chord progression similar to the distorted banjo on "Drane2" enters in the center channel as the tempo begins to speed up slightly, then the beat drops out, replaced by a malfunctioning drum kit and subterranian bass lines. The track chips away and crumbles for the next seven minutes.
The chaos isn't complete, though. Even as the initial elements are torn away by the shambling drums, a slightly audible version of the opening drone is still implied in the background, even if only as a faint echo. It maintains a push/pull feel between the initial smooth forward-motion of the track and the stuttering regression of its disintegrating second half. Certain repeated elements bob to the surface and endure long enough to be identifiable as motives, but none hold for long. At the end, the center fails, and without resolution in sight, everything collapses under the strain and the track ends abruptly.
Even at 11:23, "Surripere" can't be taken as a self-contained entity. Like the preceding tracks, it's constantly edging forward, even when it appears to be backpedaling. All anticipation without a glance behind, it refuses to stand still or establish any kind of lasting bearings. As the first side of Draft 7.30 draws to a close, there's every expectation of an outcome, but no hint of what it may be.
Theme of Sudden Roundabout
Track six comes off as an odd cousin of "Cfern". Perhaps the literal title is meant to indicate a sense of laziness and apathy, as it serves as a sort of coda to the wreckage of "Surripere."
It picks up the pieces that flew loose in the last track and does its best to reassemble them, but it's pervaded by a sense of exhaustion. Elements come together and gain cohesion slowly and deliberately while a lone snare drum tries to find its place, finally giving up and thumping insistently at a dirge-like pace as close as it can to the downbeat. Although this functions as more of a self-contained unit, the feel and placement are very similar to "IV VV IV VV VIII," and it acts as a bridge between "Surripere" and the record's somewhat more coherent second side.
VL AI 5
Following the crash-and-burn of "Surripere" and "Theme of Sudden Roundabout," "VL AI 5" sounds downright traditional and linear. A steady beat borrowed liberally from "Zeiss Contarex" guides the track through its first three minutes, and the moody synth washes that set up the harmonic structure seem to harken back to Amber, of all things. Were it not for the nervous undercurrents of electrical hum and flurry, it would be easy to mistake this for something from their pre-Envane period.
Eventually, the embedded interference rises to break the placid surface, and like the other pieces on the album, this one disintegrates toward the end. This time, though, it's more of a slow and gentle winding-down than a sputtering crash. Bits of modulated noise bleed into as the drums come unhinged, then the track is overtaken by layers of radio chatter which segue directly into "P.:Ntil."
P.:Ntil is at war with itself from the start. A standard hip-hop loop underpins the track as the now-familiar interference and time-smeared basslines nip at its heels. It all meshes together in its own way until 3:05, when a scratchy arpeggiated pattern sets up the melody and the initial loop drops out. The noise crests again, this time overlaid with almost randomly plucked strings. The mesh dissolves, and the track fades out as its principal elements are peeled away.
In a way, this track is a clean summation of their recent approach. All the signposts are there, but what makes it different is the fact that the randomness is surprisingly orgainized. The melodic content is simply a placeholder for the textural elements, which are repeated and developed through a set of variations that's almost contrapuntal. The whole forward flow is dictated by their interplay, and the impression is more of Stockhausen than anything on Warp.
In contrast, this track is more conservative. It opens with a vocal sustained vocal patch that gets swallowed by cavernous reverb while a metallic chord (think "Squeller") shudders at the periphery. There's a sense of subdued drama and paranoia that recalls the Future Sound of London's Dead Cities in the tranquil spots. However, unlike FSOL, who were content to ride the atmosphere for extended periods, Autechre reign it in quickly with a mutating 2/4 beat harkening back to "6IE.CR," and it falls back to accompaniment. The drums gradually take the foreground as the opening samples are strangled to the point of incomprehensibility.
As riveting as the track is at first, it doesn't have enough base material to sustain it past the four-minute mark. It goes on for about a minute longer until, like "Surripere," it simply hits a wall and ends abruptly.
The closing track almost justifies the initial comments I heard comparing this record to Amber. Despite the chattering percussion, things open with a soft palette, and there's an easily discernable and almost trite (for Autechre) descending minor-key chord progression. At 3:05, the percussion starts to break down, and a syrupy string-section sample enters the mix.
The drum patter becomes more frantic and starts to pull the tempo forward as test-tones mix with the strings and they lose their coherency. Just like several other tracks, it all comes slowly unwound until 7:00, when everything drops out save for a slight pulse that fades away over the next minute.