It’s coming up on 20 years since I interviewed Autechre, back in 1997 (“More Songs About Buildings”). Their music was then no less self-assured than it is now, but they were. Told their Chiastic Slide was due to be listed as the number one electronic album of the year in the magazine where I’d recently stopped being an editor, Tower Records’ Pulse!, the duo’s Sean Booth replied “What? That’s fucking ridiculous.”
This reaction had, perhaps, more to do with the venue, Tower Records, than with the music, but decades later the point is moot. The behemoth music retailers are gone, major record labels are struggling, and smaller labels face their own hurdles. However the deck seemed to have been stacked in the mid-1990s, it’s Warp Records — the label where Autechre has long maintained a home with Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, among others — that’s still kicking.
And as the record industry strains to find a path forward, Autechre strains the definition of a recording. Its most recent release is five releases in one, elseq 1″”5: 21 tracks, roughly four hours of music, the individual parts ranging in length from about five minutes to just under thirty. This massive set, released back in May, follows on something larger still: last fall’s AE_LIVE, which consisted of nine hour-long performances. Only in contrast to AE_LIVE can elseq 1″”5 be seen to deserve its lowercase title treatment.
The dimensions suit the subject matter. Autechre’s music can be all-consuming. It often lacks reference points other than the duo’s own fervidly brittle catalog. In the context of their releases, names of actual cities and dates of concerts — “AE_LIVE_KREMS_020515,” “AE_LIVE_DOUR_180715, “AE_LIVE_KATOWICE_210815” — on the live collection read less like places and timestamps and more like the fragmented, coded syllables and numerals that have long served as placeholders for their ecstatically broken beats (Envane and Cichlisuite, “Characi” and “Pen Expers,” “PIOBmx19” and “777”).
AE_LIVE used its oversized scale to announce the arrival of a dedicated Autechre store, autechre.ws, which is really front end for Warp’s venture bleepstores.com, and a window into Bleep Dispatch, a physical distribution organization. Autechre’s music may sound like willfully broken music machines, but it is the harbinger of an aspiringly efficient cultural machine.
Now, elseq 1″”5 may be modest in comparison to the live collection, and a record that’s four hours long and is subdivided twice — into sets and tracks — doesn’t necessarily evade reviewing, but its capacious nature invites alternate approaches. It’s one thing to review a book, another thing entirely to review a library. To that end, what follows are listening notes, references and thoughts as I make my travel through the collection and back again. I hope to update it on occasion, as I find my way. I’ve listened many many times now, and will continue to as long as it continues to hold interest. For now, there’s no sign of the interest fading.
I’ve had the first two entries in this listening diary — on the first track of set 3 and the second track of set 4 — in the can for a while, and I had planned on having a third track written up before first publishing this, but I figure to just set this rolling and see where it goes.
Track: elseq 3 001 “eastre” (22:15) September 10, 2016: The track is one phrase on repeat, a brief riff — about 12 seconds long, give or take — played over and over, a sequence of dependable modulations tweaked in utterly undependable manners. The theme is dramatic, with a portent not out of place in a Hollywood thriller. It sounds a bit like the duo is offering itself up to score, if not actually provide the theme song to, the next James Bond film. The tweaks are drastic, warping and quavering the riff, despite which the riff itself proceeds unaltered. It’s all about torque, all about the sound being submitted to a sequence of experimental stressors to witness how it responds. The repeated theme is so brief, it brings to mind the experience of playing a video game and being stuck on a level for so long that the music, a brief cue, plays over and over, adorned and filtered only by other on-screen sounds, by your relative position, and by the status of other players’ fates elsewhere in the game. Except here the level is designed for just such an experience. It’s a locked box, and you must settle in for the unsettling 22-minute ride.
Track: elseq 4 002 “foldfree casual” (09:50) September 10, 2016: Among the earliest places to hear Autechre was the Artificial Intelligence series from Warp Records. Autechre was one of three acts to have two tracks on the first Artificial Intelligence compilation (10 tracks total), back in 1992, and their first proper album, Incunabula, was part of the Artificial Intelligence series a year later. The term “AI” served largely as a touchstone for trippy science-fiction daydreams at the time, but with Autechre’s intricate, digital productions it became an inspiration for generative systems of music making — systems that despite not being alive achieve a lifelike quality. In other words, what sounds “broken” in Autechre’s music isn’t really broken; it’s expertly engineered — it just reflects a metric logic, an internal clock, that has more in common with an organism than with a machine. What makes Autechre’s music thrilling is how that organic quality plays out in machine noises. At first “foldfree casual,” with its opening vapory horn-like yet blithely synthetic intonations, sounds like their bid to score the forthcoming sequel to Blade Runner, another AI touchstone. Those lines give way to this prismatic noise that has a randomness closer to speech than to melody, fragments that suggest a generative process at heart, noises reacting to some interior, software-based narrative, rather than to mere filter processing or traditional compositional intent. They gather heft, and as vocaloid music will do, bring to mind John Williams’ first-contact music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The phrases are increasingly near-verbal as they proceed, and even more so they’re deeply emotive (not exactly a realm Autechre is often associated with). The track “foldfree casual” is akin to witnessing to an artificial intelligence gain sentience in less time than it takes to get a pot of water to boil. With sentience comes an instinct for self-preservation, and more insistent, militantly rhythmic percussion kicks in around the six-minute mark; my mind pictures something struggling in captivity. Whether the next shift is due to external sedation or internal meditation, the urgency gives way to calm in the closing minutes. Eventually it’s back to those opening, hazy chords: The android dreams.
Track: elseq 3 002 “TBM2” (06:45) September 12, 2016: Toughest tracks to write about are your favorites. I’ve played this one hundreds of times at this point, often for an hour or two at a time. I tend to listen on repeat, usually to focus my imagination, to listen intently and as background. In this case, it’s more addiction than analysis. This is swaggering cybernetic reggae at quarter speed, the strange melodica-like element a frayed thing losing itself in the mix. At six minutes, the track is half the length of the preceding track yet feels twice as long — in a good way. I don’t really want to just write about this track; what I want to do is to figure out how to make a long poster, a visualization, that depicts the subtle shifts in this industrial techno, the elemental phases of these noise metrics, the production tweaks of this cyclopean beat, the countless variations that unfold as it plays. I imagine something sprawling that wraps around the walls of my office. Despite the trenchant, tightly huddled affect of the track, “TBM2” suggests a deeply immersive study. Nothing else amid the vast expanse of elseq has hit me the way this track has.