Autechre: Rough Guide
I first heard Autechre sometime in 1993 while working at an old (and sadly, deceased) record store called Turtle's. Wax Trax had sent out some interesting promos from the seminal "Artificial Intelligence" series, which was just getting underway. The series had one heck of a roster in retrospect: the Aphex Twin, Black Dog (now Plaid), Speedy J, the Higher Intelligence Agency, Seefeel and others.
One of the records was conspicuous because there was absolutely nothing conspicuous about it. No promotional slicks with gushing quotes from Melody Maker, no celebrity endorsements, nada. I wasn't sure if Autechre was the name of the group or the album. I popped it in, and was very impressed. If nothing else, I was impressed by the sheer lack of anything distinctive about it. It was just another "archair techno" record, as they called it back then. A really good armchair record. I was struck by the fact that none of the techno cliches of the time were anywhere to be found. The cover was completely abstract, as was the music. There wasn't a hint of emotion anywhere, just really well-crafted music. Nobody would ever mistake this for music performed by human beings. I found myself listening more and more often to this strangely subtle and inconspicuous record.
I looked for reviews, but the press simply seemed not to have noticed Incunabula much at all. When they did, they were vaguely complimentary but mostly noncommital. This wasn't the sort of group that seemed very interested in building a fan base (or even speaking to the public). I expected Incunabula to be a one-off, one of those records that ends up being lost in the used bins somewhere down the road.
If this sounds like damning criticism, I assure you it's not. As of 2002, if you haven't heard Autechre, chances are you haven't heard much electronic music at all. Though they're still somewhat reclusive as people, they've managed to cover a huge amount of stylistic ground over the last few years, and they've become an institution in their own time. Skim over five reviews of any recent electronic group, and chances are, Autechre is mentioned in at least one, whether it be as an influence or a comparison. I can vouch for this personally, as some of my favorite music of the last year has their influence somewhere in it: the Boards of Canada, Mum, Dntel, Jega...practically the only electronic artists that don't owe Autechre some degree of credit would be the few other acts with their own unique approach, such as the Aphex Twin or Mouse on Mars.
So how did we get from there to here? That's what I hope to explain. Since the Trouser Press failed to mention them in their fifth edition, I've chosen to write my own overview, sans the bile and elitism, of course...
[I have tried here to review Autechre's output in as close to chronological order as possible. Bear in mind that, particularly in the United States, where their records are distributed by Nothing, distribution has been terribly inconsistent. Their material has been released out of order, some of it in different forms (such as Garbage and Anvil Vapre), and much of it was never released stateside at all. In other cases, such as with the Peel Session Eps, material was released years after it was originally recorded. I have tried to follow the order in which this music was recorded rather than the order in which it was released. I have also excluded their side projects, such as Gescom, simply because most of that material is unobtainable through normal channels at this point.]
Incunabula (literally "first book" in Latin) was their debut. It's a bit deceptive, since it was originally a collection of unrelated tracks that they put together for release, but it holds up well as a proper album nonetheless. The general mood is somber and quiet, with intricate and meticulous percussion tracks and minimal but effective melodies. Points of triangulation might include Kraftwerk and Eno.
"Kalpol Intro" leads into "Bike," which is a deceptively funky (god, I hate that word) and evocative track, with a rubbery synth line over the top. Nothing much seems to change in the short view, and there's no verse/chorus relation to speak of, just undulation and variation. This is a good representation of their style: assemble a small number of simple elements, develop and layer them over time, fade out. Most Autechre is more concerned with the scenery than the journey. Their music is often (and most easily) described through visual metaphors. The impression is more of architecture than performance, and "Bike" is just as good an example as any. The image is of a sleek car slinking its way down a city street in some futuristic version of Tokyo. If Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash ever got the Hollywood treatment, then this would be the opening music as the camera pans Hiro's car.
"Autriche," like much of the material on this record, is immature and undeveloped compared to what they'd do in later records, but it's a much better-than-average track and an enjoyable one nonetheless. "Bronchus2" acts as a neat intro to "Basscadet," which was their first bonafide single. Tight percussion ratchets back and forth across the channels over a sinister bass line until the bass drops out and the bells and cymbals take up pitches and the melody winds through them. It's brilliant and exhilirating, and it never stays in one place long enough to be cloying. "Eggshell" is a great, sprawling track, taking its time to develop in sometimes unexpected ways. "Doctrine" starts with skeletal, almost random-sounding percusson, then gradually coalesces into something brisk, aggressive and downright sneering.
"Maetl" and "Windwind" are both effective, if somewhat bland compared to what went before, and "Lowride" is just downright embarrasing. Ignore it and skip to the last track, "444," which is just incredible. An organ fugue rises out of the mix over mutating percussion, and the whole piece is like a Persian rug with infinite detail. The piece takes a long way to go nowhere special, but that's exactly the point, and it's an incredible ride. This was the piece that made me a fan.
If you're new to Autechre, this record is as good a place to start as any. Even if you don't become a foaming raving fan, it's still a great (and now classic) electronic record.
Their next release was a protest record of sorts. The passage of the Criminal Justice Bill was imminent in the U.K., and under its terms, any sort of large gathering in which electronic music with repetetive beats was played was illegal and subject to prosecution. Ludicrous times apparently merit surreal measures, so Autechre released the Anti Ep. The cover was plain turquoise, emblazoned with the letters "AeP" and a sticker that read:
"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 at both forty five and thirty three revolutions per minute. 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 harrassment. (...) Autechre is politically non-aligned. This is about personal freedom."
The music on Anti is hardly as oddball or subversive as the liner note suggests, but it's quite solid nonetheless, and worth seeking out if you can find it. "Lost" is a great track, energetic in its own way, and wide in scope. "Djarum," while interesting, doesn't really stand out, but "Flutter" closes out the record by delivering on the promise on the cover. Over the course of ten minutes, a lazy synth line plays over constantly changing, often frenzied percussion. It's a unique piece, and the gimmick it's based on actually works. Go figure.
Around the same time, "Basscadet" was released as a single Ep. Beaumont Hannant and Seefeel both contribute intriguing remixes, but Ae manages to outdo both on their own take on the track, transforming it into something slow and elegaic, with a strong hint of menace. This track pointed toward the direction they would take on the next record. If you can find it, they also did a track called "Skin Up, You're Already Dead," which appears on the cd single of "Like a Motorway" by St. Etienne on Heavenly. Though billed as a remix of the St. Etienne song, "Skin Up..." is actually a slowed-down remix of "Basscadet" with different melodic content.
Amber was the follow-up, and their first proper album. Fans of Incunabula were divided in their opinions, and so was I. At first, I enjoyed the record, though I found it lacking. It took several listens before the details became apparent. (This is possibly the only stylistic approach shared by all their material-it takes time to reveal its inner workings, which are usually quite worth the effort)
The feel here is chilly, remote and arid. The cover art (which is the only literal art they've ever used) depicts pink sand dunes, and for a band whose music conjures up visual connotations, this seems apt. I've heard Amber described as the perfect soundtrack for a drive through the Mojave desert at night, which is as good a picture as any, since there's a real sense of space in this record. Not as in empty space, but as in the wide-open kind. Most of the drum tracks rely on samples that only vaguely resemble drums and the melodic material is more lush and organic than on any of their other work. Still, this record comes off as very sterile. It's almost like watching a storm roll by from the window of a hermetically-sealed room.
The record opens with "Foil," which is an amelodic track built on a rising/falling two-note bass line and flanged percussion. As on the rest of the record, the drum tracks are somewhat recessed in the mix and panned to the outer edges, giving that feeling of space. The percussion itself is much more organic this time around, both in timbre and approach. After six minutes, the first actual piece, "Montreal," kicks in with a driving bass drum and hi-hats bouncing from speaker to speaker. The piece is overlaid with an odd sound like a rapidly descending set of wood blocks, which gives the impression of rain falling against a window and running down. Tenative strings edge in and out of the mix. This is one of the most melodic and mainstream tracks they've ever done, and it's one of the best here.
All of which makes "Silverside" a pointless, annoying throwaway. The strings are pretty, yeah, but without the drive of the previous two tracks, they're just fluffy clouds. There are vague, unintelligible vocal snippets similar to the one in "Basscadet," and a sample from "Kalpol Intro," all of which which leads to the initial impression of, "Oh no, complete rehash." When Amber first came out, this was the track where I stopped listening. It would be another month or so before I picked up the record and gave the second side a chance. Skip this one and listen on.
"Slip" is a complete anomaly in the Ae catalog. It's actually a peppy major-key track that bubbles along agreeably with a 2/4 beat. If it weren't for the subtle blasts of static creeping through the side channels, I wouldn't even recognize it as an Autechre track. Out of context, it comes off as a better orchestrated Tangerine-Dream-meets-Kraftwerk track that everybody on Warp was doing at the time. Don't get me wrong-it's a good track, and very meticulously arranged. It's just shocking in that it's almost conventional. In sequence on this record, though, it fits here. I picture the terminal of an airport when I hear this one.
At this point, there's a change in direction with "Glitch." A lopsided drum line thumps insistently while something like detuned bells echo in the background. The string arrangement is one of the simplest and most beautiful that they've done. There's a sense of despair and isolation that carries over into "Piezo." The drums become more aggressive and strident, and the strings take on an air of desperation as the drums fade out. The last four minutes of the piece are a haunting chorale with only a strange chilly piece of distortion in the background.
"Nine" is a gentle patter of synth pads that, like "Foil" and the next two tracks, could have been better if it were much shorter. "Further" is a slow-moving, menacing piece that strongly resembles the opening track of Tri Repetae, but over the course of its ten minutes, it just loses the listener's interest. "Yulquen" is another pleasant but insubstantial drumless track.
"Nil" is a keeper, a slow, leering track that uses its time wisely to develop a set of nicely intertwined themes. The atmosphere is very similar to "Glitch" and "Piezo," and the drum programming is particularly well-done. "Teartear" is an almost industrial track that chugs along with its own strange bouyancy. It's an incredibly dark, sullen, almost angry track that gradually slows down over its course, giving the impression of malfunctioning machinery. A great closer to the record.
Amber could have been a truly great record, and in many respects it is. It has some essential material. In fact, "Glitch" may be one of the best tracks they've ever done. The record as a whole, however, is plagued by a lack of focus. Many of the tracks seem to go nowhere, and the album is very poorly sequenced. Nonetheless, it's worth having, but it's certainly not the best starting point for the neophyte.
Part of my grudge with Amber is the fact that some of its best material was left off due to space considerations. This material was culled together and released as the Garbage Ep, which is a much more cohesive piece of work.
The term "Ep" is a bit misleading here, since Garbage is forty minutes long and functions as a record unto itself. The cover art depicts a fractured version of the landscape from Amber, and the general consensus is that Autechre chose to release this material separately, as they didn't see this fitting contextually with the record. It's an odd choice, because this just so happens to be one of the best things they've ever done, and it throws some of Amber's faults into sharper relief.
The tracks on Garbage are long; "Garbagemx36" clocks in at over fourteen minutes, and the others hover around the nine-minute mark. Unlike some of the material on Amber, however, not a second is wasted here. All four tracks are hauntingly beautiful and meticulously programmed, clearly organized with a sense of development. The impression is that of watching architecture take form...very mournful architecture.
There's a real sadness about this record that gradually seeps in on the first track, which builds from one barely perceptible climax to the next. The sonic palette is much the same as on Amber, which is lush and vibrant. It opens with what sounds like a typewriter in the next room. Bell samples that sound like crickets sigh in and out, and when the beat enters, it's almost tentative. Hints of the chords come and go for a few minutes until the melody comes in, almost as a secondary concern, and the whole piece spends the next ten minutes gradually taking shape.
"PIOBmx19" rides a cadence similar to the one on "Teartear," but somehow lighter on its feet. The rhythm of the track suggests breathing, and there are so many sounds comingling in the background that you could spend the length of the track just trying to pick each one out. When the melody does enter, it's somehow desultory and detached, more an adornment to the rhythm than the other way around. "Bronchusevenmx24" is simply astonishing. A barely audible female voice counts off in the background while wooden-sounding synth pads lay down a soft tabla-like pattern. There's no melody to speak of, just light, almost indistinct arpeggios leading one chord vaguely to another. Not much happens here, but for some reason, it's how nothing happens that makes the piece so compelling. Toward the end, snippets of melody mingle with the percussion track, but even those fade out, and you're just left with the chords and a feeling of something half-remembered. Think of an updated "Music for Airports."
The biggest surprise is the final track, "VLetrmx21," a completely drumless piece that resembles nothing so much as an industrial take on Barber's "Adagio for Strings." The instrumentation, which sounds like an orchestra in a wind tunnel, builds and subsides over the course of eight minutes. Like the previous track, "VLetrmx21" doesn't really go anywhere, it just paints a very beautiful but very bleak picture.
In 1995, Autechre also recorded the first of two Peel Sessions. In sharp contrast to Amber and Garbage, on which they had become somewhat esoteric and noncommital, the tracks here are firmly grounded. The percussion tracks are still heavily altered, but they now resemble at least a rough approximation of actual drums.
"MilkDX" opens with heavy, echoed drums. Airy synths and a heavily treated vocal sample meanders over the top. "Inhake 2" has an almost hip-hop feel, with a huge bass drum on the downbeats. A steady hi-hat keeps time like a metronome while a rubbery bass line carries the melody. One of the most driving tracks they've done since Anti.
"Drone," which may be a companion to "Drane II" on LP5, both in name and atmosphere, is a long, sprawling piece. A strident cymbal skitters over barely audible drums while the bass sets up a melody which is echoed several octaves higher by a bell-like overtone. A distorted, constantly mutating organ chord winds through the whole piece, giving the impression of radio stations bleeding together. This record was a good indication of the gritty, more earthly approach they would take over the next few records.
Their next release was the Anvil Vapre Ep, which was a major turning-point for their style. This is where their focus started to shift toward a greater emphasis on rhythm and texture than before. This is also the record where they truly chose to cut loose.
"Second Bad Vilbel" starts the proceedings with a blast of snarling low-frequency static. A pounding, angular rhythmic backbone enters, replacing the expected snare drum with something more akin to a dentist's drill. What little melody there is gets buried under layer after layer of abusive percussion. The fact that any individual element is capable of being heard is a good testament to what brilliant programmers these guys are. The track slows down to a crawl at the six-minute mark, and the pieces just gradually disintegrate and fall away.
"Second Scepe" tones things down a bit, but the drums are still frantic, even if they're overlaid with gorgeous strings and a neat clipped vocal sample. It's a great and very memorable track-you're just not sure whether or not to trust it just yet. "Second Scout" brings things down a bit, and is actually somewhat agreeable in comparison. Though the drums are still aggressive and the bass snarls, at least it does so in a major key here. Elements of reggae can be heard in the chord timbre, which is very evocative of "Garbagemx36."
"Second Peng" shows a definite dub influence, with a slow, cavernous drum figure echoing at the bottom of the mix while a hi-hat chatters away in double time. The track slowly builds layer after layer of grit and debris over a melodic figure that sounds like a distorted foghorn. This is how I pictured "industrial music" when I first heard the term-the sound of dread, decay and dying machinery, the slow but final collapse of the automated infrastructure as the machinery sputters and finally burns out. Leave it to Autechre to make it a listenable and riveting piece of music.
Tri Repetae shows Autechre tightening up the reins a bit, resulting in an album that is both agressive and tightly disciplined. Critics and fans agree that this was the apotheosis of their output. It is definitely one of their best records and is generally considered to be one of the greatest records that the genre has ever produced.
"Dael" opens with a rumbling, almost subaudible bass drum overlaid with sterile and insistent percussion. The barely-contained chaos of Anvil Vapre is harnessed into a neurotic pointillism here, and everything proceeds like an infernal sort of clockwork. A sullen melody is carried by bells over two intertwining basslines, and for all that seems to be happening at once, each element is distinct and perfectly placed.
Despite its sinister intentions, "Clipper" is almost insanely catchy. An ingenuous lockstep carries the track along while synths moan in and out over a sparse bass line, and the track is taken through its paces as material is layered and reconstructed on the fly. Though I never saw it, I've heard this song was in fact used for a Volkswagen commercial. Perhaps they were advertising bulletproof muscle-cars with heat-seeking missiles.
"Leterel" is the only weak track on here and can easily be skipped. "Rotar" lives up to its name, invoking images of threshing machines chattering away to each other in the dark. The pace is slow and deliberate but never ponderous. Soft organ tones wash over a percolating beat that changes almost imperceptively over the course of the song. "Stud" is a slow, ruminative track just seems to hover over sparse percussion while high-pitched static holds the pulse in 3/4. Like "Rotar," it's more concerned with atmosphere than event, and it's hypnotic and absorbing.
"Eutow" brings the record back up to speed. A fast, almost-convential beat holds things together while retro-sounding synths settle like stormclouds. "C/Pach" follows, sounding a bit like something off Incunabula. An organ lays down steady chord changes while a faster version of the percussion from "Stud" skitters along underneath. "Gnit" sounds very much like its name-whatever that may be. It starts as an almost mischevious and insignificant bit of drum programming until a sad melody starts to gradually coalesce around the edges.
"Overand" is the type of piece that Amber couldn't seem to get right. A treated electric piano carries a mournful, repetitive figure which joined by high-pitched overtones and an almost imperceptible rhythm section. You can barely hear it, but you know it's there nonetheless. Like "Rotar" and "Stud," it evokes a certain, almost subliminal reaction, like a fever dream or deja vu, that's hard to pin down. It plumbs the same murky emotional depths as Garbage, but with seemingly less effort. Like the rest of the album, it gives the impression that human will wasn't even present in the equation, that somehow the rabid machines that spun so out of control on Anvil Vapre have gained sentience and decided to sing of their own volition.
"Rsdio" seems to be a subtle culmination of everything that came before. Sounds from previous pieces assemble and dart in and out of the mix over a droning bass line and percussion that sounds like an oil drum being tapped from inside.
It has to be mentioned that the sound quality on this record is incredible. The arrangements are absolutely perfect and each part is perfectly placed in the mix. For some reason, it took Nothing records almost six months to get this record issued in the United States, but the American version (which unforgivably truncates the cover art) includes a second disc with Garbage and Anvil Vapre, both of which were never issued here. As a set, it makes the best possible starting point for newcomers. It should also be noted that the only liner note is the admonition that Tri Repetae is "incomplete without surface noise," and despite the pristine clarity of the cd, the hiss and pop of vinyl does add another dimension to the record.
Another Ep, Envane, followed less than a year later. It shows Autechre pursuing a style closer to the midtempo hip-hop of the Peel Session than the clinical precision of Tri Repetae. The sound itself is closer to that of Anvil Vapre, but the approach is more relaxed and deliberate. "Goz Quarter" actually opens with a beat-box type of drum pattern, complete with turntable scratching. The track uses the same type of bass line as "Dael" or "Second Scepe," along with standard-issue mournful Autechre strings-more of a rehash than anything else, really. Nonetheless, it's a solid piece, even if it's not as revolutionary as expected.
"Latent Quarter" immediately clears the board, though. Heavily distorted snare drums set up an odd, scratchy-sounding ratcheting pattern, and when the bass drum kicks in at 2:05, the track takes off into something completely different. The drums creak like doors coming unhinged, and an odd underwater string section gives way to a melancholy clarinet part. They've basically taken the formula from the first track and turned it inside out-with beautiful results.
Beauty is something I wouldn't accuse "Laughing Quarter" of. A constantly modulating bass line and string section struggle to be heard over a drum pattern as punishing as anything on Anvil Vapre. In timbre, it sounds a bit like something by "I Care Because You Do"-era Aphex Twin, but the way the rhythm keeps shifting and changing is distinctly Autechre. Not immediately pleasant, but very riveting nonetheless.
"Draun Quarter" opens over an asthmatic beat for hi-hat and wood block while an electic piano supplies a very sparse bass line. The strings, which are also very minimal, fade in and out, only occasionally interacting with the piano to create a fascinating sort of accidental harmony. The track proceeds alot like something from Garbage, taking close to eleven minutes to work out all the possibilities before the drums finally give out and all that's left is a weak bass drum, pouding almost pathetically against the synth chords. Absolutely essential.
In many ways, Envane marked the last record on which Autechre did anything that sounded even vaguely conventional. Their next full-length album certainly didn't make them alot of friends.
In retrospect, Chiastic Slide stands as one of their best records, and is generally considered the great lost electronic record of the 1990's. Its influence on the electronic scene is noticable even today in the work of groups like Four Tet and the Boards of Canada. Even Thom Yorke cites it as an influence. At the time of its release, however, critics were split between calling it brilliant or screaming that it was unlistenable. Nothing records, in sticking with the general botch-job they've done handling things, declined to carry the record at all for American distribution, and for five years, listeners stateside would be forced to pay upwards of $30 for an import copy.
A casual listener would never have heard Envane, which is a crucial link between Anvil Vapre, Tri Repetae and this. As a result, the dark, organic and edgy material here would have seemed like the output of a completely different group. There isn't a single straightforward beat to be found on this record. If Tri Repetae was the sound of machines coming to life and chattering away to each other in the dark, then this is the sound of those machines trying to drag themselves out of a dark tarpit under the glare of acetylene lights on some forgotten evil robot construction site.
"Cipater" starts off with a slow, metronomic beat that's just somewhat...off. Over the course of the piece, the melody slowly develops, the first rhythm drifts out and is replaced by a second one, which lopes along in an odd 3/4 vs. 4/4 friction. All this while, broken machinery grinds and sputters away. It then segues into "Rettic AC," which is a two-minute wash of tuned static with a slight melody poking through the mist. It's very similar to "Caliper Remote" on LP5
"Tewe" is a shambling, limping beast that trudges through, leaving only fragments of melody and a slowly developing rhythm track in its wake. Oh, and dread. There's lots of that here.
"Cichli" is the centerpiece of the record, one of Ae's most disorienting *and* beautiful pieces. It takes a bit to realize that the whole track is in 5/4, but because the drums are programmed so well, it doesn't seem forced a bit. The beat here simply pounds. As it rumbles on, a pizzicato string melody carries the melody, supported an odd flute sample drifting underneath. The piece rises and recedes until the drums and strings drop out, and a chorale of flutes fades the piece out.
"Hub" is a track of seemingly disconnected beats that coalesce and dissipate around a slow melody. Not bad, but nothing we haven't heard before.
"Calbruc" enters with an absolutely punishing drum track that sounds like pistons in need of oil. At the 1:30 mark, the whole effect changes when the strings and a single bell enter, harkening back to the chorale-like melody of "Cichli," and turning what was an abusive track into a shockingly beautiful one. "Recury" follows with a floating, clanging beat that grooves in its own strange way. This is overlaid with menacing open-fifths from the strings and reversed church bells, which intermingle with what sounds like either a whale sound or a dead siren.
"Pule" has a pizzicato string line that just seems to drag on for about eight minutes. Nothing special, but pleasant just the same. Of course, it acts to soften the listener up for "Nuane," which is just a sneering ball of menace.
A disjointed beat box pattern characterizes the first part of the track. It's definitely in four, but, like much of the rest of the album, you really have to listen closely to keep your place. The whole thing mutates very subtly over the course of twelve minutes, and though nothing changes much, it's still quite engaging, and it ends the album by leaving the listener just as disoriented as when it started.
Smog and darkness seem to permeate the whole record. Much of the material sounds as if it were once analog, and living up to Tri Repetae's promise, there's plenty of surface noise here, not to mention quite a bit of grease seeping through the cracks. The polished chromes of their earlier work have been replaced here with rust and oil, but the melodies that struggle up out of the grime are among the most beautiful they've ever come up with. It's brutal and stark at times, and most of the pieces take their time to develop, but at its heart, this is some of Autechre's best work. It just takes time to reveal itself.
The skittering beat and icy chords that open Cichlisuite show Autechre making a complete change in direction. Though ostensibly billed as a set of remixes of "Cichli" ("mechanically reclaimed"), the five tracks bear little if any resemblance to the original track. The sonic palette is similar to a colder version of Amber rather than the greasy black skies of Chiastic Slide, and the rhythmic structure has taken on a decidedly schizophrenic turn that critics would later come to call "drill-and-bass."
"Yeesland" is a fast, spritely track that sounds similar to the material on Anti. "Pencha" starts almost innocuously, then slowly develops into something darker. Double-time rhytms tug against a slower, more deliberate backbone over swelling minor-key chords. "Characi" is great track that limps along amiably in 13/8 while a bass line fades in and out underneath and the percussion tries vaguely to stay attached.
"Krib" opens with an octave-spanning bell tone and segues into a slow, loping beat while an odd sound similar to a spinning bottle carries the upper register. Bells and synths play a hollow melody that seems almost like an afterthought to the percussion. A very memorable track. "Tilapia" brings things back up to speed with a gated bass drum and a snare so far forward in the mix, you feel as if you could reach up and touch it. Chords come and go tentatively until the pizzicato strings from "Cichli" come in over the top and the drum tracks gradually short-circuit and drop out one by one. The track closes out with a long string chorale similar to the original.
Though it's a major departure from what they'd been doing, the approach on Cichlisuite paves the way for the clinical, neurotic approach that they would pursue on LP5.
(Though it was simply released without a title in the U.K., Nothing records dubbed their fifth album LP5 and released it in the U.S. without the cool embossed black jewel-case it originally sported.)
LP5 shows them in flux yet again. The dark, organic landscapes of Chiastic Slide have been abandoned in favor of a clean but manic intensity. "Acroyear2" opens with a fractured music box which gives way to an odd breakbeat rhythm which pulls at the half-tempo bass line underneath while odd tinny notes carry on an almost jazzy melody. The track is an almost unintelligble blast of chaos at first. It takes a couple of listens to peel away the layers, underneath which lies a carefully controlled chrome heart. "777" settles quickly into an odd but solid groove that tumbles along obliviously while chord fragments richochet and high-pitched sine waves melt away in the background.
"Rae" is almost a relief. Noncommital synth tones hang like icicles over a a propulsive rhythm that starts clear and heavy, but slows and loses focus halfway through until it sinks into the mix, sounding much like the backbone from "Latent Quarter." "Melve" is another brief music-box interlude which leads abruptly into "Vose In," which returns to the odd tail-chasing mood of the opening track. An almost atonal chord progression marches its way over a beat that feels like an ice cream headache, refusing to resolve (It took me a couple of listens to realize that this piece is actually in a major key). The track suddenly breaks apart in a fashion I can only compare to the middle section of "Djed" by Tortoise. It's almost like someone grabbed the tape and yanked it off the reels while it was playing.
Next up is "Fold4, Wrap5," which actually uses a logical harmonic structure, but sits it firmly atop an oddly decaying rhythm track. It's interesting in concept, but it wears thin after a few listens. "UnderBOAC" is a different story. Slow, ponderous chords hang over the top of what has to be the most stunning drum track I've ever heard. Imagine the guys from Stomp collaborating with Kraftwerk. A paranoid melody pokes its head in and promptly disappears before the breakdown, which is just that. Oddly, given the absolute mechanical precision of the rest of the record, this feels almost like it were played by a live ensemble. When the rhythm gets back on its feet, a slight string section comes in just long enough to see the end of the track through. This is where the record really catches its stride.
"Corc" glides along on slow electronic piano over creaking cymbals and a snare that sounds like wet cardboard. The timing is slightly exaggerated in some places, giving the rhythm a unique sense of push and pull. The track swaggers along, picking up the occasional snatch of melody, but generally existing on its own momentum. "Caliper Remote" is an interlude that starts as a series of seemingly random scratching noises which then coalesce into a rhythm of their own.
"Arch Carrier" opens with an almost atonal arpeggio pattern which, as the other elements enter, actually becomes the underlying glue of the track. Strings like a Wendy Carlos arrangement sway back and forth, acting as a calming influence against the tooth-grinding anxiety underneath. "Drane2" carries things out in a slow, elegaic pace. A yearning melody floats above seemingly random metallic-sounding pieces of accompaniment, which finally organize into a what sounds like an altered banjo sample. (It sounds much cooler than you'd think, trust me.) The track gradually rises to a chaotic climax, the banjos drop out, and the melody straggles on over randomly struck bells. At about the 9:30 mark, it's safe to push "stop," since the rest of the track consists of ten minutes of silence interrupted by about four minutes of pointless noodling.
To American audiences, who never heard Chiastic Slide when it was released, LP5 seemed to directly follow Tri Repetae, and it probably doesn't sound like the huge stylistic jump that it is. Like Tri Repetae, LP5 is crisply recorded and absolutely lacking in any surface noise or recording artifact. In fact, it's almost too well-recorded. Many of the songs have a number of unfiltered high-frequency sounds which get a bit hard on the ears after a few listens, most noticably on "Vose In" and "Arch Carrier." Still, this is one of their best records, and it strikes an interesting balance between their tightly-controlled mechanical approach and a odd sense of playfulness.
Peel Session 2
In the same year, Autechre recorded a second Peel Session. Like the first one, this record shows them retreating and regrouping a bit before heading off in a new direction (in this case, EP7). Since the group declined to name any of the tracks, Jon Peel attached his own names to them. Most of the song titles in their catalog come off as being arbitrary, anyway, so this doesn't really seem incongruous. The cover art itself is pretty much nonexistent, looking very much like plain white with no lettering. If you hold it up to a light, you can see the lettering, slightly raised.
"Gelk" has a bass-heavy drum loop that does its best to avoid and obscure the downbeat, giving the track significant forward motion. There's an identifiable melody here, and the track is very listenable. At about three minutes, it switches to a minor key, the melody disappears, and the drums become more prominent. Then things slow down, and the track is carried out by what sound like bowed cymbals. "Blifil" suffers the same problem that surfaces on much of EP7 in that it starts out compelling, but fails to go anywhere, and by the time it ends seven minutes later, you're just relieved that it's over. It's got a great, pounding drum loop which, like "Gelk" leaves the actual locus hard to find. A very minimal melody, on high-pitched tinny bells, gives the listener a point of reference, but although the track develops in very miniscule ways, it's just not enough, and the moaning vocal samples toward the end are simply out of place.
"Gaekwad" seems to take an eternity to come together and another eternity to fall apart. The same gamelan and bells that figured prominently on "Gelk" chatter away at each other here as a skittering drum loop enters, and they gradually find their place over it. The bass drum takes on a rippling effect, and the undercarriage drops out to leave the bells and drums floating. After a minute of this, the strings enter, and the track recombines into a beautiful, echoing crescendo, which then fades out before turning repetetive. A very good track that almost has more ideas than it knows how to use, many of which later show up on "Maphive 6.1."
"19 Headaches" has its own inner logic. Problem is, it's not a very interesting one. There's an underlying pulse, but you have to listen closely, and if you listen closely, you realize that most everything else is pretty much haphazard and boring. This is worth having for certain tracks ("Gelk" and "Gaekwad" are keepers), but is best avoided by all but dedicated fans. In the same way as EP7, however, it's interesting when placed in context, and it's an indicator of what's to come.
The title EP7 is a bit misleading, since the record is actually over an hour long and has eleven tracks. However, Ae decided to classify it as an ep, which was probably wise, since this can be viewed as a problematic sidestep rather than an inconsistent, mediocre album. Again, the British and American versions have different cover art, and the British version does include a hidden track that was excised from the American version for "technical" reasons (I have no idea what those might be). As it is, the hidden track is (truly) pointless and atonal indulgence and probably not worth paying the import price for (though the import does come in a cool frosted jewel-case).
EP7 sticks with the modus operandi of LP5 and the second Peel Session in terms of approach, though the sound is a bit more analog and organic. The problem is, while LP5 showed a sense of thematic development, most of the tracks here end pretty much as they started, and many come off as academic excercises (a pitfall that LP5 narrowly managed to avoid) rather than fully-formed pieces. Still, there's some interesting material here, particularly on the second side.
The hidden track can be accessed by rewinding past the first track. The first proper track is "Rpeg," which has a nice polyrhythmic clarinet sample that folds and manipulates over a repetitive and (after about five minutes) grating drum loop. "Cceg" is a slow Miami-bass influenced track which acts mostly as a bed for some cut-up vocal samples and is easily skipped. "Squeller" is a good track that has a very similar approach to "Gelk." Metallic percussion swings under a set of arbitrary chords, and the whole track has a fluid feel that's almost hard to grasp. Like the others, however, the track gets a bit monotonous after a few minutes.
"Left Blank" and "Outpt" both rely on recessed static and background noise for their texture. The only real difference between the two are the drum tracks used. Both have an interesting atmosphere, much the same as on "Rotar" and "Stud" from Tri Repetae, but that's really all they have.
The second side is where this record picks up. "Dropp" is a great piece that shambles in on a minor-key piano figure and a distorted drum loop in 7/4. It doesn't develop much, but you spend the first half of the track finding your bearings anyway. Still, it's compelling, and in contrast to much of the other material here, it's short and doesn't overstay its welcome. "Liccfli" is a frantic excercise in drum programming that's almost virtuostic, but it lacks any real substance. "Maphive 6.1" is another story. It opens over a string section and driving kettle drums while gamelan-sounding bells loop over the mix. After a couple of minutes, a string bass enters, and the drums switch to a skittering snare-bass loop. Both the melody and the rhythm undergo several changes, and the piece ends with a chorale of backmasked bells.
"Zeiss Contarex" has a slow, distorted 2/4 beat supporting modulated, rumbling distortion. Over time, the distortion takes on an almost dramatic melody and an indistict female spoken-word snippet weaves into the background. Another strong piece. "Netlon Sentinel" is just incredible. It comes off as one of the most overtly angry things they've ever done. A flailing, feedback-riddled rhythm, again in 7/4, propels the track over a heavily-ampified string section. I can't help be reminded of a very pissed Mahler. It gets out of the way once it's exhausted its ideas and segues into "Pir," which although predictable, is very enjoyable. The track rides a melody remniscient of Eno's Apollo over schizophrenic, distorted drums. It comes off as a bit formulaic ("let's put a pretty melody over some really screwed-up drums!"), but it's pleasant nonetheless.
Critics were pretty evenly divided in their opinions on this one. Some found it unlistenable, which was a common complaint about all their post-Tri-Repetae output. Others saw it as being overindulgent, and some saw it as being too complex (which I think is giving it too much credit in a way). For the most part, it has some great material on the second side, notably "Dropp" and "Netlon Sentinel," but the first side consists of throwaways, and as a cohesive whole, this record simply doesn't work. Die-hard fans probably already have this, and anyone interested in their later work would enjoy some of it, but for new listeners, this most definitely is not the place to start.
When Confield came out, it confused a great many people (O.K...me included, at first). In reality, however, it's really not so much of a departure as an amplification. Many of its roots can be heard on EP7 and the two preceding full-lengths.
Alot of folks saw Confield as a strange aberration in the Autechre catalog, almost a complete retreat from anything they'd done before, but on closer inspection that's not quite the case. Confield draws a great deal of its texture and some of its off-kilter rhythm structure from Chiastic Slide. Certain rhythmic elements can also be traced back to LP5 and EP7. I've already reviewed Confield elsewhere on the site, so here, I'm just going to do a quick track-by-track survey.
"Vi Scose Poise" draws the detached, rolling bells from "Gaekwad" and the disconnected bass approach from "Corc." "Cfern" is remarkably similar in rhythm to "Squeller," and "Pen Expers," though it uses a different palette, shares its atmosphere with "Arch Carrier." "Sim Gishel" can trace its droning vacuum cleaners back to "Outpt" and the slower tracks on Chiastic Slide. Its steady drum loop is remarkably similar to "Tilapia."
Where the heck "Parhelic Triangle" came from is anyone's guess, but the bells can be traced to the same sources as the first track and the bass drum is lifted off "Cipater." "Bine" definitely pulls its programming approach from "Licflii," even if it sounds like it's been put through a short-circuiting tape deck. The drum loop in "Eidetic Casein" sounds like the one for "Arch Carrier," and in fact, the whole piece could be seen as a spiritual sibling of it.
"Uviol" is pretty much a singular occurence, though it shares much of its texture and cadence with "Corc." "Lentic Catachresis" could have fit in anywhere on the second side of Chiastic Slide, and much of the noise that seeps in at the edges sounds like something off the intro to "Nuane." When the drums start to speed up, you can hear definite echoes of both "Gaekwad" and "Maphive 6.1."
In a way, Confield sounds more like a return to the industrial decay of Chiastic Slide than a departure from LP5. Until recently, many critics considered Chiastic Slide a sort of one-off departure, a failed and abandoned attempt at a new direction. Looking back, though, it would appear that in fact, it was the sterile chrome of LP5 that was the side-step. I'll wait and see what happens next.
So, if you're new to Autechre, where to start? I'd definitely go with the American print of Tri Repetae first (the one with the plain olive cover). For the money, you get a second disc with Garbage and Anvil Vapre, making this a solid introduction. From there, any of their full-length albums are a good bet, though Confield might be a bit thorny for all but the adventurous, and their first two sound a bit dated these days. LP5 or Chiastic Slide are good bets, though each has its inner logic that takes a few listens to get used to. Envane and the first Peel Session are also essential.
A word on distribution: some of this stuff is hard or near impossible to get, depending on where you live. As of the time of this writing, all of their albums are in print (Chiastic Slide was just released in the U.S. last month) and you should be able to find them at any decent record store. If you don't have a decent record store around, read further.
Bear in mind that Nothing records does a truly terrible job of handling Autechre's material stateside. Despite the butchering of Tri Repetae's cover art, the decision to release it at regular price with the bonus disc was a laudable idea. All the albums released stateside are identical to their British counterparts, except for LP5Peel Session Eps are also available here. Nothing has declined to issue their other Eps, however, and from what I understand, they have some agreement that bans any other American distributor from importing them, which means you're going to have to pay more and wait longer for them.
Some local independent shops will carry their import material, as it does sell well, but if you don't have any decent record stores in your area, most of this stuff can be got online if you know where to look. The first place is warp records, their label (beware that the site requires Flash). Their prices are average (but not as high as buying an import copy from an American shop), and their shipping rates are reasonable, but bear in mind, it's got to be shipped from the U.K. As far as I can tell, they keep everything in print, though they do run out of stock on individual titles from time to time. They also usually send you all kinds of cool promotional material with your order.
(postscript: As of April 2002, it would appear that Warp has, in fact, opened an American office, and that the distribution agreement with Nothing has expired. This may improve matters somewhat. Chiastic Slide was recently issued stateside, and hopefully this means that their other material will be reissued here as well. The Aphex Twin's output as Polygon Window is also being reissued.)
Believe it or not, Amazon is also a good place to check. If it was ever in print in the U.S., they can probably get it. You can check CDnow, but they don't really have anything that my local Tower doesn't, and they've completely botched the last two orders I've placed with them. Also, check the used-cd bins at local shops. You can often find copies of their more "difficult" material there (no, I'm not making value judgements, it's just that EP7 and Confield seem to get the "Island of Misfit Toys" treatment most often). Django's is a great online used-cd shop that posts inventory from a chain of stores in real time. You can even request that they email you when certain titles come in. They're a little pricier than the local shops, but it's a class operation, and it saves alot of driving.
If you've bothered to read this far, I thank you for your time. Also, if you've had the patience to wade through my prose, then you probably have that elusive mixture of intelligence and an abundant amount of free time, all of which means you'll probably enjoy Autechre's music. Happy hunting!