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The Essential... Autechre

It’s hard to overstate how singular Autechre sound.

Superficially, you can tag the duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth with the same IDM/leftfield techno label as LFO, Plaid, Aphex Twin, The Black Dog, Venetian Snares, u-Ziq and the like, but more accurately, they operate within a genre of their own making. They seem to obey a kind of Heisenberg principle: attempts to define and categorise them render them ever more slippery and elusive. That distinctiveness goes some way in explaining why most Autechre records don’t sound dated. They aren’t alone in making heavy use of the aqueous MC-202 synth, samplers and, most important of all, the fleshy thump of the Roland TR-606, but they are truly brilliant technicians, wringing all manner of alien sounds from their gear as if programming it to within an inch of its life.

Suitably eclectic DJ mixes provide an insight into Autechre’s pool of influences, from acid house to electro, techno, kosmische, hip-hop, experimental and ambient. Their FACT mix for instance blends krautrock by Tangerine Dream, Bernard Parmegiani’s musique concrète and death metal by Necrophagist with underground hip-hop by Percee P, J Dilla and Black Milk, and their twelve-hour mix for Percussion Lab is even more ambitious, splicing Boyd Rice and 808 State with Surgeon, Ultra Magnetic MCs and Coil. Autechre’s output is similarly expansive. Though it seems crass to complain, their lack of economy is arguably their greatest weakness, and even the most rabid fan wouldn’t disagree that their vast discography of eleven long studio albums and several album-length EPs could benefit from a trim. As well as their Warp releases – which over twenty years have contributed significantly to the label’s identity – Autechre have released a number of remixes for the likes of Stereolab and Tortoise, and Booth and Brown are also part of the experimental Gescom collective. Still, a little patience with their discography is amply rewarded. Autechre’s records are seldom anything short of fascinating – and quite unlike anything else.

(Amber, 1994)

You can – cautiously – split the Autechre catalogue into a number of rough phases. The first ends around 1995, before the release of Chiastic Slide, and includes Autechre’s debut LP Incunabula (really an installment in Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series), as well as Amber, Tri Repetae and a number of important EPs. The releases from this time are no less experimental than Autechre’s later work, but an emphasis on melody makes them an easier entry point into an often-daunting discography.

It’s on Amber that you’ll find some of Autechre’s most ambient moments, liquid synth doodles like ‘Nine’ and ‘Yulquen’ that betray a strong Eno influence. They may be beatless, but powerful low-end means that they’re contemplative rather than ethereal. There’s something earthy about the Vangelis-channelling synthetic strings of ‘Silverside’ and the delicate web of rhythms offsetting ‘Foil’’s warm chords. Such ambient pieces sit comfortably alongside ‘Montreal’ and ‘Piezo’, which tap into the deep veins of techno and acid house. ‘Teartear’ is dense but panoramic, with a deep bassline, murky vocal samples and synth loops and stabs that swell to a jarring cacophony before slowing down and disappearing entirely, leaving you quite disoriented.

(Anti EP, 1994)

Twenty years after the fact, the Anti EP, a deft anti-government statement, remains the only explicitly political record Autechre have released. In response to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which banned raves – arbitrarily defined as gatherings where music with “a succession of repetitive beats” was played – the Anti EP came stickered with warnings against playing the techno tracks ‘Lost’ and ‘Djarum’. ‘Flutter’, on the other hand, with its thick lattice of broken drum-machine rhythms and snatches of haunting synth melody, was deemed suitable for public use, though the sticker recommended that DJs “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.”

‘Flutter’ is one of the finest early examples of Autechre’s supreme knack for drum programming, with blistering off-kilter rhythms whose urgency is only reinforced by the languor of pearly synths. But for all Autechre’s technical achievement on ‘Flutter’, the song’s political import is just as significant. Though the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was eventually suspended, the Anti EP is a continued reminder of dance music’s extra-linguistic and innate potential for subversion.

(Tri Repetae, 1995)

The CD of Tri Repetae was packaged with a sticker that claimed the release was “incomplete without surface noise”, while the record sleeve bore a sticker to the opposite effect: “complete with surface noise”. Though at first that seems like elitism or an affectation, one listen to Tri Repetae on vinyl proves Autechre right. It’s not simply a case of “vinyl sounds better”, but a case of aural perfectionism; Autechre’s splutters, blips and grinds are perfectly complemented by the light froth of vinyl crackle. On Tri Repetae, Autechre continue to deploy shimmering kosmische-informed synths, but they counter them with a wealth of jarring beats and textures. ‘Eutow’, for example, roughens up strings with a clacking breakbeat and caustic bassline, and ‘Stud’ is even more brutal, with a delicate swathe of noise that renders its juddering beats and thick atonal squelches even more alien. When the percussive lashing abates and the song grows eerie and beatless, the light hiss of vinyl is more audible. It may just be surface noise, but somehow it makes everything sound deeper.

(Peel Session, 1999)

Recorded in 1995 for John Peel’s Radio 1 programme and released four years later on Warp, the Peel Session EP makes a strong case for the importance of Autechre’s non-album output. ‘Milk DX’ is a minimal track that pairs ghostly synths with bizarre creaks and sputters, and ‘Inhake2’ sets a heavily distorted vocal loop against a futuristic electro-funk backbeat. But ‘Drane’ is not only a highlight of this EP but also of Autechre’s early discography. Its centerpiece is an abrasive scattershot rhythm that darts from left to right, steadily fleshed out with swishy pads and a plaintive melodic loop. Discordant synth figure and creaks of radio noise build around the rhythmic core until they reach a critical mass, throbbing in an uneasy equilibrium. This one-off radio session probably allowed Autechre greater scope for experimentation than a regular record release, and the outcome is some of their finest music to date.

‘Goz Quarter’
(Envane EP, 1997)

Without hip-hop, Autechre would probably never have made the electronic music they’re celebrated for. In an interview with FACT, Sean Booth calls the first time he heard hip-hop “a massive turning point… It weren’t until I heard electro and saw people breakdancing and scratching that I really got into music.” The Envane EP is probably the strongest catalogue evidence for this all-important but often overlooked aspect of Autechre’s work. The burbling funk and glitchy beats of ‘Goz Quarter’ are indebted to Autechre’s electro hip-hop heroes Mantronix, while rhythmic scratching celebrates the weirdness of Dr Octagon, whose ‘No Awareness’ is also sampled here. Now, the influence of underground hip-hop on Autechre seems to have come full circle, with their impact on a number of current producers spreading beyond independent music and into the weirder corners of the mainstream, from El-P and the Def Jux artists to Kanye West and the Yeezus producers, namely Evian Christ, Hudson Mohawke and Arca.

(Chiastic Slide, 1997)

Though the band didn’t see the album as a worthwhile full-length follow-up to Tri Repetae, in retrospect Chiastic Slide is a pivotal moment in Autechre’s history. Though it retained some of Amber and Tri Repatae’s warmth, Chiastic Slide was a marked shift in Autechre’s focus from melody to texture and rhythm.

‘Hub’ is one of Autechre’s better ambient tracks, making up for its lack of drums with a dense network of textures: white noise, squeaking acid synth and indeterminate clicks and whoops. ‘Cichli’ is more drum-led. Autechre team an itchy break with a jaunty synth loop and dour bassline; when the mournful string passage comes in, the contrast between timbres is so extreme it sounds almost as though two different songs are playing. ‘Nuane’, the closing track, spins gritty synths and fizzing drums into a messy cacophony that subsides into a slow groove before finding resolution in a bass drone and synth stutter. This new focus on alien textures would go on to be a fixture of subsequent albums, but the resolution of ‘Cichli’ and ‘Nuane’ would give way to ever more amorphous, abstract structures.

‘Under BOSC’
(LP5, 1998)

Technically untitled but commonly referred to as LP5, Autechre’s fifth full-length consolidated their entry into a more minimal, percussive phase. More varied in tempo and style than a typical Autechre record, LP5 includes the furious ‘Acroyear’, where 8-bit synths and flickering double-time beats give way to a fast drum-led groove, and ‘777’, a collision of pounding drums with chopped rave synths. There are plenty of counterpoints to their toughness, such as the minute-long melodic interlude ‘Melve’, and the decidedly bizarre ‘Fold4 Wrap5’, which sounds like a videogame soundtrack eating itself.

But if any one track signifies Autechre’s movement towards a more abstract, drum-oriented style, it’s ‘Under BOAC’. An orgy of percussion, it pairs a four-note loop with odd sputters, a mangled vocal sample and all manner of exquisitely programmed and reverbed drums. The spastic drums, crunches and clacks rise in a powerful crescendo, before suddenly grinding to a halt.

(EP7, 1999)

Like so many of Autechre’s transmissions, EP7 contains a fair amount of filler, but its standout tracks are the match of any album highlights. The eight-minute ‘Maphive61’ is one of the EP’s prettier moments, with glassy timbres only a hair’s breadth from Plaid, and the kind of jittery percussion Autechre do so well. EP7 is another record where the leftfield hip-hop influence comes through strongly: ‘Ccec’ hinges around a mangled fast-rap sample, and ‘Rpeg’ couples boom-bap beats with playful synth loops. While Autechre are often criticised for being overly serious, tracks like ‘Rpeg’ are a lot of fun, and should help silence the detractors.

‘Parhelic Triangle’
(Confield, 2001)

Confield is one of Autechre’s most uncompromising albums: ‘Uviol’ is an eerie, glitchy ambient piece, ‘Pen Expers’ is violent and convulsive, as if the synths are trying to break free from their percussive frame, and ‘Sim Gishiel’ is all machinegun breakbeats and dystopian scrapes and bleeps. Though it’s the kind of album best consumed in one gulp, ‘Parhelic Triangle’ is particularly potent. A thick entropic soup of crunching synths, wasplike buzzes, dissonant wails, keys and gamelan-like chimes swarm frantically. Without a sense of forward motion, the multitude of sounds sound less like a composition and more like the decay from within of something massive – but a perfect mix means that rather than congealing into a frowzy mass, every element rings out with dry, disarming clarity.

(Draft 7.30, 2003)

A series of textured, drum-led pieces, Draft 7.30 pulls the same tricks as Confield. Though that’s hardly a complaint, Autechre do tend to find a favoured sound for a record and run with it for the duration, which can lead to tracks bleeding into one another and losing a little of their singular shine. But where they might not among electronic music’s more exacting editors, their expansive approach can result in a number of interesting outliers.

So while the deconstructed beats of ‘Suripierre’ and the smoky electro-funk of ‘P:ntil’ make for typically compelling tracks, ‘Tapr’ is weirder and more exotic, a glitchy mutant that does away with a groove in favour of a incoherent mass. Drums that sound like vinyl pops fizz around a low synth line, joined by a disjointed host of sounds – synth gurgles, detuned piano, strings and organs. The overall effect is not one of progression but of micro-movement, a swirl of tiny particles all colliding according to their own curious logic.

‘Pro Radii’
(Untilted, 2005)

Confield and Draft 7.30 heaped together scratchy textures and glitchy beats into abstracted vignettes, but Untilted saw Autechre return to an emphasis on winding narrative structures. But even by Autechre standards, ‘Pro Radii’ is a curveball, a meandering track that starts and finishes in entirely different moods. There’s a lovely contrast between the opening percussive stomp and its padding of ambient mush and obscured rap vocals. A wafting synth melody lends an unexpected pensiveness to the tough syncopated groove, and closing organ chords end the track on a funereal note quite at odds with the opening cold, fuzzy textures. It may not contain any explicit emotive signifiers but it’s among the more moving moments in the Autechre discography, putting to rest any notion that the band is all machine and no heart.

(Quaristice, 2007)

Quaristice is a marked outlier in the Autechre catalogue, a collection of twenty relatively short tracks (with one exception, they all clock in at under five minutes). The album was produced using live equipment, and where previous records were born from painstaking track constructions, here the process was entirely different. In the FACT interview, Brown details how he and Booth recorded hour-long improvisations, and cut them down, first to twenty minutes, then ten, and then three. The result is more like a series of sketches than an album.

As such, Quaristice works better when viewed as an Autechre retrospective record made of new compositions than a new album proper: ‘Perlence’ is moody, squelchy breakcore; ‘Altbizz’ and ‘Outh9X’ are unusually pretty drone tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on Amber, and ‘Bnc Castl’ is another thrumming stew of videogame bleeps and pointillist percussion. But ‘Steels’ is one of Quaristice’s more unusual moments by virtue of more than just its pronounceable name and less than three minutes’ runtime. The martial thump of a resonant kick drum is miles from the frantic 606s that usually pepper Autechre tracks, acting as ballast for the fried electronics that splinter off in short erratic bursts.

‘See On See’
(Oversteps, 2010)

Oversteps solidified Autechre’s return to less challenging, more ambient styles that Quaristice – particularly its opening and closing tracks – hinted at. Opening with near-silence for almost twenty seconds, ‘R Ess’ builds swollen synth chords at a glacial pace, its broken drum pattern subordinate to the treacly textures. The drums on ‘Qplay’ are stripped-back versions of the crunchy patterns found on Confield and Draft 7.30, and disjointed rhythms on ‘St Epreo’ sound incomplete, as though Autechre cut up the drum section and put it back together with some of the pieces missing.

They forgo drums entirely on ‘Known(1)’, whose organ chords and winding melodic passages feel like a return to the Tangerine Dream wooziness of Amber, and ‘See On See’ is an even bigger departure from the percussion-led sound, its dewdrop synths again heavily indebted to Eno. Where there are drums, they’re largely uncomplicated. On ‘Treale’ Autechre set their patchwork of humming, sizzling and shrill synth textures to a straightforward boom-clap backbeat, and the rhythms on ‘D-Sho Qub’ and ‘St Epreo’ are vigorous but unreliable, dropping in and out so that the centerpieces of the tracks are their assemblies of molten synths.

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