Autechre released their fourth long-player, Chiastic Slide, 20 years ago this month. Chris Zaldua remembers a life-altering first listen to one of the most influential electronic records of all the time.
Chiastic Slide, released on February 17, 1997, isn’t even Autechre’s best album. (That award goes to Tri Repetae, for purposes of pleasure, or LP5, for warping of the mind.) But pull back far enough and view Autechre’s discography through a wide-angle lens, and Chiastic Slide is the axis point around which all of Autechre’s work revolves. The Warp pioneers’ discography is best understood as a continuum — one that begins with the organic and compositional and ends with the stochastic and chaotic. Chiastic Slide is the sound of two artists discovering their true calling.
Speaking personally, it’s hard for me to think of another record whose opening salvo — its first minute, let’s say — has ever left such an immediate, life-altering impact on me. I first heard Chiastic Slide when I was young, barely a teenager, the consequence of poor socialization and an early-onset internet addiction. My fascination with electronic music, inoculated at age eight when I stole a cassette tape called Rave Til Dawn from my 16-year-old sister and proceeded to have my malleable mind shattered by first-wave jungle and hardcore, had developed into a full-blown obsession, which I managed to satiate only by scouring online for further out-there sounds. Soon enough I had stumbled upon Chiastic Slide.
“The album spawned a cottage industry of imitators and copycats”
My memory of the first time hearing ‘Cipater’ is almost 20 years old, but it seems like yesterday, thanks to what is perhaps the most distinctive percussive loop of all time: ro-ro-thunk. Just what is that sound — a laundry machine, a malfunctioning diesel engine, a broken gear shaft? (Even its title seems to speak of an unknowable mechanism, touched by no human hand.) Countless rinse-outs later, ‘Cipater’ still fills me with wonderment and befuddlement in equal measure.
And then the real Chiastic Slide begins.
As recondite as ‘Cipater’ is, it is the record’s most humanistic listen, for whatever that’s worth. Afterwards, things get weird. Earlier Autechre works, as strange as they got, were beat-centric affairs, grounded in the duo’s love of hip-hop and breaks. ‘Rettic AC’ is something else altogether: it’s a dysrhythmic exploration of texture, and a herald of what’s to come.
After ‘Cichli’, in which Autechre wear their hearts on their sleeve on an emotional, almost sickly sweet (or did I mean ‘Cichlisuite’?) track, come four tracks (‘Hub’, ‘Calbruc’, ‘Recury’ and ‘Pule’) that don’t sound particularly alike, but are united in their alienness. The first time I heard Chiastic Slide, this middle section lost me. Two decades later, it still leaves me feeling queasy, uncanny valley-style — like I’m listening to an artificial intelligence’s approximation of what “music” might be. After ‘Nuane’, the album’s magnum opus, which might be the most bang-on hip-hop tune Autechre ever wrote (it’s not hard to imagine an M.C. like Sensational spitting bars all over its exquisitely broken beats), it ends with a beautiful, blissful fadeout of reddish noise.
But what makes Chiastic Slide such an enduring classic is not simply how fine it sounds, but how enormously influential it was — and still is. Almost immediately upon release, Chiastic Slide spawned a cottage industry of imitators and copycats. In fact, numerous artists seem to have staked their entire careers on it: Arovane, whose first slate of 12″s sound like delicate CS outtakes; Funkstörung, who pivoted from tough-as-nails Bunker-style acid to glitchy Chiastic-style beats and crystalline melodies; Phonem, whose Chiastic derivations were playful, even a bit twee; Machinedrum, whose first album (Triskaideka, recorded as Syndrone) and the record label on which it was released (Miami-based Merck) seem indebted to Chiastic Slide in toto; and Apparat, who released Tttrial and Eror, one of the finest Chiastic-likes, before going pop.
Other artists reverse-engineered the blueprint and incorporated the album’s DNA into other genres: Push Button Objects brought crunchy cut-up beats to bear on hip-hop; Phoenecia folded it into electro and Miami bass; and the grandaddy of them all, Radiohead’s Kid A, turned Autechre worship into multi-million dollar pop success, exposing a generation of new listeners to the wonders of electronic music in the process.
That’s no criticism of these artists. Much of the aforementioned work, derivative as it may be, is a treat for the ears. Chiastic Slide was simply so monolithic, so singular, and represented such a break from contemporaneous orthodoxy that aping it was all a generation of electronic musicians could do to come to grips with it.
Twenty years later, it still sounds like the future. In truth, there has never been another record quite like Chiastic Slide. We’re all still trying to catch up.