By Joel Elliott | 28 February 2008
Based on the history of criticism and praise surrounding Autechre, one might assume the band has been given a Golden Pass to vanguard status regardless of the quality of their output at the exact same time that most critics don’t seem to care about them anymore. They’re like the Jack Nicholson of music; it’s incredibly crucial that we get the cut to his shining mug at the Oscars every year to remind us Hollywood has a hip, dark side, but nobody really cares if he’s ever in another movie. And critics do tend treat Autechre this way, with this basic story: having seemingly exhausted the intensely cerebral IDM that they pioneered a decade-and-a-half ago, they’ve been left in the dust by more recent movements in electronica and techno. And so they putter off another album every few years, each one yet another stunning-yet-same-y exploration of their cold, harsh, electronic world.
This scenario is partially correct. I mean, the band is what it is, and like it or not, its strength lies in their willingness to tread where most of their fellow electronic musicians won’t: the purposefully frost-bitten, the obtuse, and the ugly. The results have, accordingly, varied. But it’s the ability to coherently distinguish between the good and boring brands of the music Autechre dishes out that trips up most critics. Consider: All Music Guide list “Difficult” as a mood for their music like that’s an inherent emotion expressed by the music itself rather than, as it actually is, a pejorative knee-jerk reaction disguised as a neutral observation. Are they difficult? I guess, but I also think that electronic music that wears its electronics so overtly on its sleeve tends to be left unfairly to flail between hardcore enthusiasts who overstate its robotic qualities as some incisive comment on postindustrial society and haters that refuse to engage with it in the first place because it in turn denies tags like “warm” and “organic” that overzealous rock musicians and critics have convinced us are crucial to a pleasurable music experience.
Point being, it’s rare to see somebody distinguish quality for Autechre by saying something more incisive than, “it sounds like their last one. They’re out of ideas.” We could attribute that to the fact that “out” music often—and incorrectly—carries with it an assumption that it is genreless and therefore can be judged superficially by how it makes you feel—in Autechre’s case, isolated, scared, cold, whatever—but that’s unfair too, right? The tonal qualities that unite 16 years of Autechre records have little to do with the process of each one. Take Untilted (2005), their last record, which was monotonous and bland. It wasn’t these things because it sounded too much like previous Autechre material; it was these things because once you stripped back its harsh exterior you found what was effectively a schizophrenic recycling of hip-hop and drum n’ bass tropes. Autechre hadn’t run out of ideas; they were executing the ideas they had poorly.
I say all this to make two points: (1) Autechre are next-level stuff, sure, but they aren’t operating in some genreless vacuum of tonal electronics that separates them from more traditional house and techno, and (2) you can make qualitative observations about their music based on that fact. And because of that, the fantastic Quaristice is not simply astounding because it comes from a band most fans had given up on. It is, strangely enough, the closest the band has ever come to actually realizing the kind of genreless terrain of pure sounds that critics have always erroneously pegged them with. It is alienating and cold as a result of its unpredictability at the same time that it is far more vibrant and varied and—gulp—warm than anything they’ve yet released.
Autechre have obviously come to Quaristice with a different strategy than that which they’ve recently employed, most evident in the fact that the songs are on average about half as long as usual. We get 3-4 minute sketches that allow the band to work out single ideas without exhausting them. But the crucial thing here is that the shortened length does not mean these tracks are more accessible or pared down; in fact, I’d argue that the condensed way they approach the kinds of seismic and subtle shifts typical of Autechre songs makes these tracks more counter-intuitive than their previous work. It’s curious—at the same time that opening up their palette to less harsh soundscapes should make the band less standoffish, the actual result is quite different, offering some of the most experimental and yet rewarding work of Autechre’s career.
That reward comes at a price. For those who have complained about the band sacrificing the distinct melodies of their early records, that hasn’t changed and there may not be much to like here. Here the band is much more concerned with juxtaposition; tracks rarely hold a single beat or melody for too long. That said, who really cares if many of these tracks are or transform into abstract sound collages when the band is working so closely with the actual, physical properties of sound? Take “Fol3,” which consists of heavy gusts of air cross-channelled to create mini-Doppler Effects like bullets whizzing half an inch from your ear. Autechre take these clean, undistorted sounds and loop them in a way which suggests violence without ever resorting to overbearing sonic techniques. Even the explosive pops at the end are taut and swift enough that the whole thing would be almost funky if it weren’t so terrifying. Ingenious mixing like this creates some haunting effects, as in “Theswhere,” whose simple disco-funk melody is paired with erratic percussion that might turn it into a furious drill-n’-bass exercise if it weren’t so muffled and low in the mix. Buried there, it creates a subtle uneasiness, suggesting that chaos exists even in the most basic, dancefloor-ready melody.
There are also tracks of stunning ambient wash that are admittedly prettier than almost anything Autechre has released. Opener “Altibzz,” “paralel Suns,” and “Notwo” are all brilliant slices of Tangerine Dream-atmospherics that lie as far away from techno-isms as any other electronic artist working today. A whole album of these might be tedious, but given the rougher edges of the album they carry a sense of tension that’s as much a product of their context as the murkiness of the tracks themselves. This sense of shifting mood makes the album their most carefully sequenced to date; whereas most of their work can be started at any point, Quaristice gains a lot from being listened to as an album.
Elsewhere, twists on more familiar approaches abound. “The Plc” starts out like many past Autechre tracks with fiery 2-step rhythms and slithering, warbly synths, but just when you think it’s going to keep layering transcendent loops until it fades out, the bottom drops out and the track proceeds into an erratic, minimal fuzzed-out beat with more hydraulic ambience and ends with a creepy, cut-up vocal sample. “IO” continues with the vocal samples, this time bathed in static and so furiously intertwined with the beats that it’s impossible to disentangle them, employing the samples as percussive incidentals rather than melodic phrases. “Simmm,” despite how closely it reigns in chaos, still makes fantastic use of space, never pairing too many elements at once at the same time that the band is cramming a multitude of ideas into the short run-time.
Quaristice—the band’s 9th full length, with about as many EPs—is probably the best album Autechre could have created at this point in their career. It sounds as ahead of the game technologically as they’ve ever been, but most importantly it sounds like the band couldn’t care less about current trends. And with an album like Quaristice, I hope the band stays locked up in their basement for another 16 years.