All Too Inhuman
Autechre's Unnatural Abstractions
w/snd, Rob Hall
Wed May 18, Neumo's, 8 pm, $15 adv./$17 DOS, 21+.
When you FInd yourself fed up with the maddening predictability and conservativeness of much electronic music--and of all genres, for that matter--you can always count on Autechre to deliver the ultra-weirdness. England's Sean Booth and Rob Brown have been tilting minds for the UK label Warp for a dozen years, getting more far-out as they go in a refreshing reversal of bands' typical evolutionary arc.
Their new album--and eighth overall--Untilted is yet another missive from the Autechrean brain trust that outlines the future of abstract techno in ways that'll take the rest of the field years to fathom--by which point Autechre will have advanced yet again. While much avant-garde music eventually becomes as innocuous as Muzak, Autechre's releases maintain their alien fascination indefinitely, sometimes actually gaining potency with age, like a fine absinthe.
Autechre's first two albums--Incunabula (1993) and Amber (1994)-- epitomize the early-'90s armchair-techno strain of electronic music that evolved into IDM (Intelligent Dance Music): spacious bleeps, mostly languid tempos, a vague sense of optimism about the future (how naive), cerebral sound design, meditative atmospheres, etc. Compared to their later works, Incunabula and Amber sound polite and genteel. Nevertheless, a strong contingent of fans ranks these albums as the duo's best. It's these folks who are likely baffled and even offended by Autechre's latter-era releases. I ask Booth if those who feel Incunabula and Amber represent Autechre's peak are going to be forever frustrated by the twosome's progress? "Almost definitely," he says. "How could we un-age ourselves by 15 years?"
Autechre began losing followers of their early work with 1995's Tri Repetae++ (the recommended U.S. version includes a bonus disc with the Anvil Vapre and Garbage EPs). From 1997's Chiastic Slide on, basically, Autechre's music has become increasingly complex and, some observers claim, inhuman and hermetic. In fact, every post-Amber album has been the aural equivalent of visiting a country you can't find on the map and trying to adapt to its culture, language, and mores--with no guide to aid you. Yet this hasn't stopped the pair from becoming the Velvet Underground of abstract techno in terms of their overwhelming influence. Record stores could devote entire bins to Autechre epigones. It may take several months or even years to come to grips with the rhythmic convolutions and forlorn melodies nestled within Autechre's densely constructed compositions. But when you do, the rewards are immensely gratifying.
But even to diehard Autechre fans, the new Untilted could be the blow that breaks their wills. Some posit that you need a PhD in beat programming to understand what the hell's going on with recent efforts like Confield, Gantz Graf, and Draft 7.30, and Untilted may just prove these dissenters correct.
From the first seconds of opening track "LCC"'s staccato pistol-shot beats and lugubrious synth murk buried beneath the percussive hubbub, Autechre throw you off balance with an assaultive arsenal of rhythms and textures. "Pro Radii" typifies Untilted's difficulty, deploying that ever-popular "orangutan trying to punch its way out of a coffin" effect. Besides the track's strangulated bass dirge and weirdly filtered metallic sonorities, herky-jerky rhythms riotously roller coaster around the stereo field, making attempts to head-nod sheerest folly.
But beyond the scattershot beats and chilly atmospheres geared for Pluto's breakers, there exist some of Autechre's most, uh, danceable cuts of this decade. Seriously. Dig below their harsh, metallic veneer, and you can detect bizarre species of funk straining to emerge. You can even discern Booth and Brown's deep roots in electro and hiphop, hideously distorted though they be, in songs like "Augmatic Disport," "The Trees," and "Sublimit."
Autechre challenge you to find coherent patterns in their chaos, to locate order in their algorithmic spasms, to find beauty in the grotesquerie of their near-infinite tonal palette. Autechre also dare journalists to escape from interviews with their dignity intact. During our e-mail exchange, Booth refuted several assertions I made about their music, upturning nearly everything I thought I knew about Autechre. To wit…
Autechre's music seems to be engaged in a constant struggle between chaos and control. Is this oversimplifying things? "Overcomplicating them, more like," Booth icily responds.
Taking into account the bristly, laby-rinthine structures of a typical Autechre piece, how do you know when a track is complete? "You just know," Booth says with imperious finality. "Like you know when a conversation is over." Ouch.