Saturday, November 13, 2010

Autechre in the 00's

Between 1993 and 1998, Autechre put together one of the greatest five-year runs in the history of recorded music. Other bands have made better music, or have been more prolific, but arguably no band has ever managed a combination of quality and quantity that can top what Autechre did in such a short period of time in the mid 1990's. They seemed to redefine themselves with every EP and album release, literally everything they did was either a mind-bending refinement on what you thought they were capable of doing previously, or a seismic shift that shifted the goalposts completely. The copycats, and there were plenty of them, were consistently left in their dust. It wasn't until 1998's "LP5" that Autechre started to slip up just enough to allow the competition to gain on them. It was a good album, but tended too much toward quirky electronica, but that was enough to satisfy the fairweather IDM fans who had just gotten into Aphex Twin. "LP5" was released to probably their largest ever audience -- their hardcore fanbase was pretty huge by that point -- and bedroom techno was all the rage with plenty of copycats singing Autechre's praises. This is likely why so many people cite "LP5" as one of their best albums, but for me at the time, it was a clear #5 in the pecking order.

Autechre never officially jumped the shark, never broke up or went on hiatus. They kept making music at a fairly brisk rate -- five albums from 2001-2010 plus a sizable collection of EPs, remixes, and digital-only releases to go along with them -- but none of this music has really added to their legacy. Their legacy was secure once the 90's were over, if they'd disappeared before 1999 came to a close then the Autechre story would be more or less unchanged. Let's just say that virtually nobody's favourite Autechre album was released in the 2000's. The arrival of a new Autechre album or EP used to be An Event in the indie music shops, but now it's Just Another New Album from a big name group whose best days seem to be far behind them.

This gradual shift in attitudes began around 2000-2001, and we can attribute that to the following:

1) The IDM/clicks 'n' cuts/glitch scene ran its course. Fairly or not, Autechre got lumped in with that scene, and when it ran its course, interest in Autechre's music waned.

2) Nobody "got" "Confield".

We'll get back to those points later on. So, following the release of "Oversteps" earlier this year, an album which I considered to be something of a comeback for the band, I figured I was long overdue to re-evaluate Autechre's music over the past ten years. In terms of total listening minutes, I likely spent more time listening to Autechre than any other band in the 90's. But in the 00's, I also slowly drifted away after "Confield", and rarely revisited any of their albums more a few months after their release (reaching a nadir for "Quaristice", which, prior to writing this post, I have heard exactly once via a pre-release online stream in '08). This will not be a comprehensive review of everything they've done in the past ten years, as I'll be mainly sticking to the albums.


"Peel Sessions II" (2000). This EP sounds every bit like a holdover from their 90's sound, and for that reason, it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of their 00's releases. Nowhere near the quality of their first Peel Session EP, this follow-up is for Autechre completists only. It was the first time in their career that they sounded indistinguishable from any of their then-plentiful clones. When I listened to this again, for the first time in I don't know how many years, I recognized almost nothing.

"Confield" (2001). Nearly ten years later, this stands as Autechre's most polarizing, most confounding album. Even those people who didn't take to it immediately (which was 95% of ther fanbase) seemed to like it because they appreciated that "Confield" was a daring, challenging record. It was put aside as an album that would need to grow on you, except that a lot of people couldn't bring themselves to pick it up again.

This really should have been the follow-up to "Chiastic Slide", in fact, tracks like "Hub" and "Calbruc" sound like dry runs for the lurching weirdness that would be "Confield"'s trademark. It's like they took the tapes from "Chiastic Slide" and put them through a shredder and ended up with "Chiastic Slide: Chopped and Screwed". On "Chiastic Slide", beats and melodies worked in unison, it's their most "minimal" album and those tracks are relentless, they keep going and going and are even irresistibly funky in parts (a lot more so than on "Tri Repetae", IMO, although I know I'm in the minority on this). On "Confield", the bottomless pit of churnings and gurglings that pass for beats just completely swamp the melodies, which have no choice but to try to keep up and tag along for the ride.

This album used to seem really extreme to me, but now it's ten years later and I've heard a hell of a lot more noise and experimental music. In fact, I've come back to this album a number of times over the years, and each time I did, I appreciated it a little bit more. Autechre were ahead of their time as usual, and I knew I'd come around on "Confield" eventually (yeah right) ... it's a great album, definitely up there with their best work.

Some "Confield"-era live recordings have appeared on the internet over the past couple of years (including this show that I attended), and I've really enjoyed the trip down memory lane, thinking back to the flabbergasted looks on the faces of an audience who were quite obviously expecting something more along the lines of recognizable elements from Autechre's studio recordings. In fact, whenever I thought about "Confield"-era Autechre, my strongest recollections were always from the live shows, not from the record itself. In those days (and it remains more or less true today), their concerts involved getting bombarded by microscopic sound elements of Autechre music, all stacked on top of each other, sped up and accelerated into your eardrums at 100 MPH. Conveniently packaged together into four 15-20 minute earsplitting segments for your listening pleasure, of course. Even "Confield"'s most extreme track, the album closer "Lentic Catachresis", doesn't really come close to replicating the assault on the senses that was an Autechre concert during that era. But fortunately, they did manage to capture that experience in the studio, just once ...

"Gantz Graf" (2002). I bought this EP when it came out (the non-DVD version), but I have almost no memory of actually listening to it. For years, the CD languished somewhere in my collection without a second thought.

Then I heard some of those live recordings from 2001 and traced my way back to "Gantz Graf". Taking cues from both the maniacal beats and sounds of drill'n'bass and the FX-laden high frequency overload of noise music, Autechre never combines the extreme and the melodic any better than they did here. The title track and "Dial" are both great, but there's no stopping "Cap.IV", which is the best Autechre track of the decade, and nothing else even comes close. By the time it hits the sped-up section at the end, and you're choking on a near-fatal flurry of thumping beats and ear-piercing electronic squiggles, you're feeling both helpless and triumphant. What can I say, listening to noise this dense, frantic, and deranged makes me feel powerful.

"Draft 7:30" (2003). For me, this was the jumping off point. There was a lot of great music released in 2003, and real life was keeping me fairly busy, so I had no time or patience to try to figure out what Autechre were trying to sell me this time around. It still sounds like an experiment gone wrong. "Confield" had its moments of serenity and structure, but "Draft 7:30" is like its brattier younger brother, refusing to be tied down by any rules at all. On "Confield" the beats are difficult to digest, but on "Draft 7:30" they feel almost random. It's their most improvisational sounding album, and the fact that it was stitched together on its 30th edit (hence the title) certainly suggests that there was plenty of jamming going down in the studio.

"Untilted" (2005). This one felt like a real "Autechre are BACK" release at the time. Gone were the bizarre, irregular rhythmic lumps and in its place were mountainous, frantic but intense beats that you could almost bob your head to. I was impressed by this album ... and then I found myself never listening to it.

"Untilted" is Autechre's "rhythm" album. There's almost nothing going on except for rhythm, there's nothing to hum, no hazy but haunting melodies lurking beneath, no points were the beat drops out some alien sounds just hang there suspended for a couple of minutes. At the end of the day, there's just nothing to remember about "Untilted", other than the feeling of getting boxed around the ears while somebody operates a jackhammer in the apartment downstairs.

It's not a bad album at all, rather, it's a great idea that was executed poorly (add them together and you've got something that's soundly average). For the first time in their career, Autechre sorely needed an editor. These songs simply never seem to end. There are too many eight or nine minute mini-epics that lose my interest about halfway through, and the album closer "Sublimit" is nearly interminable in it's coda-less sixteen minute run time*. Live Autechre shows are mostly rhythmic, but they're also persistent and unrelenting, they blast you harder and harder with slowly increasing intensity and force for fifteen minutes at a time. You've got to try 100% or not at all, sez I. Either destroy the senses completely, like on "Gantz Graf", or beat the listener into submission by, say, taking the first three minutes of "Lcc" and making that into a 15-minute monster.

* At the time I believe this was the longest ever Autechre song, a record that was smashed two years later with "Perlence Subrange 6-36" from "". Well, at least once in your life you have to say that you heard Autechre attempt a 58-minute ambient piece (speaking of tracks that absolutely refuse to come to an end).

Quaristice (2008). And here's something you never thought you'd hear from Autechre -- the "pop" album, twenty (!) tracks, nothing over seven minutes long, but most clocking in at around three or four minutes.

"Quaristice" is an incredibly complex album, which is something I didn't fully appreciate two years ago. In comparison to their three previous albums, it sounds easy on the ears, brisk and light, almost cheerful. But there's so much going on within every track, every second is packed full of rapidly shifting sound. "Quaristice" never sits still. Although I can understand why Autechre wanted to make their version of "Revolver", sometimes you can't pack six minutes worth of ideas into three without overwhelming the listener. It's only on the final two tracks, "Notwo" and "Outh9X" (the longest two on the album), that Autechre start to sound more like themselves by stepping back and letting the songs develop rather than making them a race to the finish (granted, they *are* the most ambient tracks on the album).

Despite its faults, "Quaristice" is a fair bit better than the two albums preceding it.

"Oversteps" (2010), "Move of Ten" (2010). Technically we're into a new decade here, but let's conclude the story in the present. It seems like they'd tried everything else by this point, so welcome to the "melody" album and the "throwback" EP. "Move of Ten" could easily impersonate a "lost" Autechre session from the 90's, and even though it doesn't have the depth and creativity of their best 90's work, it's nice to hear something simple and straightforward from Autechre for a change. Especially after spilling thousands of words here on music that has been anything but.

They filed away nearly all semblance of rhythm for "Oversteps", it's like hearing an entire album of lovely ambient interludes a la "Kalpol Intro" (from "Incunabula") or "Nine" (from "Amber"). There's a fantastic palate of lovingly twisted melodies here, assembled into both easily accessible and head-scratchingly weird shapes -- perhaps more than any of their other albums, there is "something for everyone" on "Oversteps". Everything is drenched in echo and thick, analog-sounding tones, and noises emanate as if from caverns. Regardless of its deficiencies (too long by probably 20 minutes, no truly great signature tracks), "Oversteps" sounds completely fantastic.


Autechre made a lot of interesting music in the 00's, but almost none of it really seemed to "define" the band, particularly not after 2001-2. If somebody who had never heard their music asked you for a primer on Autechre, there's virtually nothing you would play them from any of the above releases, nothing you would point to and say "THIS is what Autechre were about". And that's OK, nobody's prime lasts forever, and their prime was better than just about anybody else's. Now they're a legendary techno act who can still be counted on for a regular schedule of occasionally fascinating new releases. This is harder to do than it sounds. Lots of great bands take an extended hiatus at some point in their careers and coast on their reputation for a while. Autechre never did. And don't forget, these guys are still in their 30's, so we shouldn't be thinking of them as dinosaurs even though they've been around seemingly forever. They'll be making music for a while yet.

In the 90's, Autechre had a signature style and went about developing it in every direction they thought possible. In the 00's they seemed more concerned about pushing boundaries, trying to challenge themselves to do things they'd never done before without necessarily staying grounded by what had worked for them in the past. Most of the time it felt as though they were fixated on escaping from their past, as if their 90's catalogue was imprisoning them and preventing them from pursuing new directions in their. It's only in 2010, at the start of a new decade, that they have been willing to re-embrace who they were fifteen years ago.


Phil Freeman said...

Interesting; I had a pretty different take on them, focusing on the 2010 releases, on recently. Here's a link.

Barry said...

Great review, Phil. Although IMO, our takes are fairly similar, i.e. "Oversteps" is the melodic, pretty one and "Move of Ten" is the old skool one.

We even agree on "Draft 7:30" being the low point.