EPs 1991-2002 Box

(Warp; 2011)

By Conrad Amenta | 31 August 2011

Music today is as abrasive as any in the history of recorded sound. Be it Battles’ alien precision, Odd Future’s controversial lyrics, Colin Stetson’s dystopian allure, or Tim Hecker’s shuddering testaments to noise, 2011 offers only the latest in deconstruction, amalgamation, or outright belligerence. We in the indie set may be accustomed, paradoxically, to the concept of the bellicose, to the degree that the abrasive sometimes no longer abrades. And yet despite this, Autechre, an electronic duo who got their start in distant, vanilla 1987, continue to be characterized as the ultimate in the difficult and novel, like a sack of AIDS Wolfs hucked squalling into an industrial machine. It’s true that their songs are long and noisy, but the elements of Autechre’s complexly controlled chaos—rhythm and noise, mostly—are in no way offensive to the ear like they might have once been. My sense is that our ears have become attuned to the dense, the coarse, and the counterintuitive. Perhaps Autechre are seen as difficult not because of their constituent elements, which can also be found on the latest math-rock, hip-hop, shit-gaze, ambient, and noise, but because they are attempting to make their music difficult to enjoy in the way we enjoy other music. And it’s all in the attempting.

Because Autechre’s music is definitely not difficult to enjoy. It’s not just long, noisy songs, but also surprising and melodious, catchy and danceable, balls-out and audacious. In fact Autechre, along with Aphex Twin, exemplify that weird contradiction of being Superstars of IDM. Their music has been hugely influential, not only within the insular scene of IDM, but also to critically unimpeachable pop acts like the Notwist and Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke, prior to Kid A (2000), basically holed up with the Warp Records catalogue and had his mind blown. An Autechre retrospective like this—a collection of EPs and out-of-print material from 1991 to 2002—offers us listeners the chance to look back not just on the band’s output, which is still really fun to listen to, but through a late-century window on the methodology of experimental music. It’s tempting to hear how dated it is, but the attempt, again, is not dated so much as traditional. What it helps us understand is how experimental music works, how long established and credible that process it, and as such re-affirms our love of it.

Futurism, an early 20th century Italian art movement, has its vocabulary scavenged to describe Autechre, and this is only appropriate. Certainly in the abstract, the association with technology and the industrial work well, but that’s purely an aesthetic quality. There are thematic planes on which the Futurists and Autechre share an existence. For example, the supreme irony and quasi-tragic nature of Futurism is that any Futurist who lives long enough sees that his vision of the future is either A) wrong, or B) right, but as a result the artist is absorbed into the present and the mainstream and destroys himself as a member of a distinct movement. Jean-François Lyotard described as much in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”: the post-modern, which Futurism once was, survives only long enough to be rejected or absorbed into the Modern. In Autechre’s case, they’ve hung around to see a future in which accessible, affordable tools accelerate diasporas of “avant” music, a future predicted and brought about, in part, by them. Strictly speaking, Autechre as a vision of the future no longer exists. The very concept of IDM—the “intelligent” in this case a stand-in for “post-modern,” “Futurism,” “experimental”—once subjected to the efficiencies of mass production becomes, simply, dance music. This same dynamic was apparent across the European formalism that would give way to abstract and deconstructionist art. Music, these decades later, is playing out the same pattern once traced by the Modernists of the early 20th Century.

I’ve described this as tragic, but I mean that in terms of genre rather than out of any real sense of loss. The self-destruction of Futurism is hardly a problem—except, perhaps, when you’re trying to write about a Futurist duo’s retrospective box set. Futurism is usefully evoked, but with it an attendant utopianism/dystopianism that oversimplifies. “Did we get Autechre’s vision of the future right?” It turns out that binaries are simplifications—bringing about a suggested ideal is neither entirely good (everyone becomes “intelligent”) or entirely bad (there is no more “intelligence”); of course life is full of contingencies and exceptions, as is our reaction to Autechre’s box set. And it’s not as if there’s much specificity to this future being depicted: it’s not Brave New World, but more like the sense or essence of something feeling “futuristic.” As Sean Booth says in this Wire article, “We are absolutely not trying to represent or duplicate anything at all […] we’re purely interested in being creative.” As that same article points out, Autechre is not free-associating, picking referents out and combining or skewing them. They’re attempting to be anti-associative, to negate referents, to imagine something entirely new. Their material, and their technique, isn’t particularly novel, being a composite of funk’s repetition, African polyrhythm, techno, hip-hop, and avant-jazz improvisation. But there’s a tradition being accessed, and it’s one of peripatetic movement. Maybe I should amend my statement to read, “It’s all in the failing.”

Which is how Autechre are still creating music that is relevant, though their work has spawned numerous imitators and innovators. It simultaneously inhabits spaces meant for the armchair musicologists and the casual listener, antithetical not to substance but to the technique of rendering substance. Autechre offers a model that is sustainable because they remain fresh in their approach and their mostly anonymous status means they get to keep being Autechre instead of a constantly-shifting locus of identity and sound. Theirs is music that is not so much experimental as about the experience of living in a world with experimentation, of feeling its disorienting effects, and of associating it with emerging trends.

A history of Autechre is not only that of the duo, but of the dissolving tactility of the genre itself. Sampler stations and analogue synths, though still present, give way to scalable programs, development environments, and limitless computer memory. They remain a duo whose music is “about” medium, like De Stijl painters were “about” technique (and in being about that, a commentary on trends in art that don’t privilege technique like they used to). Unlike, for example, Kraftwerk, whose Futurism was embodied in makeup, uniforms, and literally robotic behavior, Autechre is a document of the anonymous, music that sounds like it was created by a computer, and which sometimes actually is, as is the case with their algorithmic Generative or “emergent” music. It reflects the complexity and tenor of its time. Their song titles give away as much; one is not meant to make sense of “Piobmx” or “Bronchusevenmx” or “Repeg,” which sound like pharmaceuticals or the conditions they’re meant to treat. They are composite and truncated—at once complete and obscure, rendered without context.

What I’m trying to foreground here is that so many interviewers and reviewers seem to evoke Autechre’s unplaceability, the inability to define their output using the convenient language of genres and styles. Not only is this not true—they went through the same iterations as Aphex Twin, i.e. dance, then ambient noise, then ambient noisy dance—but their methodology is both the explanation and the subject of their music, essentially locatable on a timeline of mediums and tools. That they are even bothering to be so “creative” in the first place is fundamentally post-modern in its cultural tenor, in the way it shrugs off the utilitarian aspects of the modern history of art as work.

Autechre’s particular brand of Futurism also implies that technology is inherently a good thing, associated with this self-legitimizing and perpetually important “creativity” and thus always employed with positive ideology if not always to positive ends. This is itself a fresh and invigorating idea coming off a decade in which new platforms for information exchange all but destroyed the music industry as we know it. Familiarity with music’s new tools—both for its creation and its distribution—has reached a point where we can once again be optimistic about the presence of these tools in our lives. For this duo, embracing technology is not only a question of preference, but of existentialism. Autechre without new technologies, and without the discussions in which we orient ourselves in relation to them, would simply not exist. This box set cannot help but be a timely and relevant cultural artifact. At the very least, it asks us to look at music with a wide lens rather than retreat to the micro-trends of the day.

Aesthetically, listening to a collation of Autechre is a variation on the unfashionable and the still-startlingly new. Listening to early Autechre is roughly the equivalent of watching an incredibly skilled watchmaker arrange an assortment of colored blocks—not unlike looking at Futurist paintings, all sleek modern cityscapes. It’s a discordant experience in that the music is literally dated: it makes a prediction which this box set allows us to retrospectively assess. First ever single “Cavity Job” sounds clumsy today, though at the time it was cutting edge. One experiences the same listening to late-eighties/early-nineties Aphex Twin, Cabaret Voltaire, or, if you want to go earlier, Throbbing Gristle, who sound sort of ridiculous to our ears today. Which makes something like 1997’s Chiastic Slide such a good record fourteen years after its release: it is, despite adhering just as plainly to the ideology of the technical junta, a morphological masterpiece. Early Autechre is easy to pin down with referents. Chiastic Slide is not, except insofar as one recognizes in Autechre what they recognize in other artists, like Aphex Twin, who successfully operate in unsettling referents. This box does occasionally reach Chiastic Slide‘s heights, but not often.

Autechre’s albums may represent signposts on the winding path of their unintentional meta-history of electronic music; these EPs do not. If their early material is placed on one end of the scale, and Chiastic Slide (for argument’s sake) is on the other as something that, right now at least, sounds timeless, this box set is the incremental, inexorable crawl from one to the other. “Cavity Job” is unintentionally hilarious, some clumsy amalgam of hip-hop and techno better suited for a discount dance compilation, and the “Bass Cadet” remixes each shoehorn obnoxious repetition, some early variation on what would later become their sublime signature of nuanced, gradually emerging patterns. But later discs’ offerings, like “Gantz Graf” or “Gelk,” are illustrative of how far the duo had come in a relatively short amount of time. There is a repetition of melody, of percussion, of one and then the other or of both, and this relatively simple toolbox is complicated and elaborated upon until both artist’s intentions and audience’s expectations become subject to speculation. Maybe it’s that there is still such a thing as “intelligent dance music,” but that the intelligence in question isn’t that brought to the equation by the artist so much as the analysis spurred in the listener. Call it Reader Response theory, which a band as process-driven as Autechre more than enable.

In fact, the later EPs of this box, located nearer the band’s best output—Tri Repetae (1995), Chiastic Slide, and LP5 (1998), all staggering works—simply remind you of just how uncannily the group can nestle melody at the center of their contrapuntal rhythms and sudden, jarring shifts. The two Peel Sessions, originally released in 1995 and 1999, are particularly awesome, the first presenting a melodious undertone and the second an appealingly chaotic series of collisions that, together, offer a comparison within the comparison of this box to the band’s discography. A song like “Blifil” sounds restless, relentless even, but that restlessness is harnessed in two particular ways: with momentum and repetition, two dynamic forces that inform one another. There is constant movement, but in patterns. Enough has been written on the psychological and theoretical effects of repetition in music, becoming the subject of dissertations and scholarly texts. Autechre continue to make manifest abstract, scholarly concepts usually relegated to classical, formalist genres. They, along with Aphex Twin, might be this generation’s best example of composite modern and post-modern methodologies, employed cyclically to fold and reconstitute one another via the effects of repetition on the listener.

Tracks are presented almost entirely without context—no liner notes, no cartographic linking of songs to release—and so the box is decidedly disinterested in acting as an introduction of sorts of the band itself. Autechre seem to truly believe that they are working to create something that hasn’t yet been created, despite how firmly they are planted in aesthetic and technical traditions. To impose linearity on their process would be to imply narrative, cause, or movement toward something, notions which they seem loath to accept. This implies a misunderstanding by the band itself about how they fit into music. Theirs is not novel music, but their methodology is one that privileges novelty. That might seem like a minute distinction, but it’s key, so we should be glad this box set doesn’t allow the band to speak more explicitly about themselves. It’s left as an aesthetic rather than educational experience, allowing us to widen the discussion at our whim, and in that regard it’s more than worth getting your hands on.