When people say “album xyz is difficult” what they most likely mean is that album xyz is annoying or grating or otherwise “not fun.” Sometimes this is a subtle way of telling someone that they’re not actually going to like a certain band, avoiding the reflexive combat instinct some folk display when someone tells them “you will not enjoy this.” That reaction probably stems from an underlying sense that when someone says “you will not enjoy this,” what they’re really saying is “you are too stupid and uncultured to enjoy this.”
While that attitude is embarrassingly foolish – you are not made better or worse by the music you like any more than the core of your being is actually touched by the clothes you wear – it is also driven by elitism’s deformed twin, anti-intellectualism. After all, if something isn’t immediately understood, it’s obviously being difficult on purpose, right? Someone can’t possibly follow their heart to a weird conclusion of tiny, private sounds or long stretches of feedback or 12-tone plonk. It must be meant to offend, to annoy, or to otherwise throw a curveball at the terminally straightforward.
Of course, if that is what they’re actually doing – if the intent is really just to annoy – all that can be invoked is a hearty and heartfelt “so what?” But where’s the fun in that?
These misguided people are, by and large, assholes. It’s not their fault, perhaps, but they’re assholes nonetheless. However, like any good comic book character, they have a nemesis; a contingent that genuinely namechecks these works as a means of saying “I am super cool and smart and junk.” So like a gross Russian porno, asshole meets asshole and sparks fly in the tribal circle jerk between the forces of HOW DARE YOU PUT ON AIRS and LOOK HOW SMART I AM YOU REDNECK.
You can also see the evolution of this particular “dialogue” at work in the various Pitchfork reviews of the Autechre catalogue over the past decade or so. My snarky encapsulation usually goes something like “They seem bored…old record was better…6.8.” Pitchfork generally wants to have a good time, and since “difficult” really means “not fun,” can you blame them? Their review of Quarstice is rather evenhanded and makes some good points, but this is outlier data in their bell curve of jerkoffitude.
Back to the myth of “difficulty.” And back to Autechre, whose work so dominated a genre that they ran headlong into crazy bananas town while the genre they shaped melted into a diffuse, multi-layered influence on everything from rap to country & western. (While I certainly fabricated that last bit, I would not be surprised if it were true.)
We shall start from the beginning with two simple rules:
1) The truth shall be told.
2) Remember that in this case you can indeed judge these books by their covers.
At the very least, we can move away from “difficult” and go back to the intellectual honesty of “this sucks.”
IN THE BEGINNING
There was Inculnabula. It is an artifact of a simpler time, when the whole “intelligent” dance music thing was just getting started. Now, the effect is blunted. It’s mostly boring and repetitive. While for some this is just another way of saying “mid-90s IDM” I can point to our cover rule; it’s a heady throwback to the early days of the new futurism, a shiny robotic landscape where everything is overlaid with a vaguely militaristic HUD. What are they taking aim at? Fucked if I know. Too much goddamn Bladerunner in one ear and techno-optimism in the other.
The quaint notions of the middle part of the 1990s are illustrated in tracks like Basscadet, but you do hear hints of the future in the highly repetitive, vaguely electro-infused drum machine workouts. If you’re working backwards through Autechre‘s body of work, I’d say it’s fine to make one final stop here, perhaps right before seeking out an .mp3 copy of the early 12″ version of Cavity Job. But this is not the place to start.
If you want to hear the oldies, this is where you start. Nothing will blow your mind, but it’s got “Foil” and “Montreal” on there, the keys to a simpler time when Autechre used words for track titles instead of Fibonnaci Sequences. Rough and repetitive, so much so that the background textures are really more of a draw. They’re warm, fuzzy and slightly off, but comforting nonetheless.
The cover, again, tells you everything you need to know about the album in one simple word. It’s almost amazing how useful they are in determining what the score actually is.
Now, I began as a lowly American college student with Tri Repetae++, which collected an album with a second CD featuring two previous EPs; their most “famous” song, “Second Bad Vilbel” comes from this particular era. It was so thunderous, so absolutely different than anything I’d heard, that it changed the way I dealt with the very concept of electronic music. I know that sounds pretty dumb now but I think most of us have had this kind of experience and can relate. It’s why people end up feeling nostalgic as they grow older, attempting to reconnect to a moment in their past where there was a unification of the desires of the mind, heart and body.
“VLetrmx21” will always conjur up a sadness that no lyrical song, no rock song, no anything could possibly match.
Anyway, I think this album holds up across the cruel wastes of time; it is mechanical and “cold” in a way that seems hopelessly warm and quaint nowadays. Even the cover is a nice blend of Army Olive Green and Avacado Green, not so much cold and lifeless as a bit blank; it would make a nice accent for the woodwork in your kitchen.
THINGS ARE STARTING TO GET SERIOUS
For example, “Hub” has this delightfully off-beat thudding, like a robot climbing stairs only to fall back down and repeat the process because robots aren’t very bright. The textures in the background, however, dance about like an old man playing flute in a graveyard in the middle of the night; you can barely make out what’s being played, but the emotional tenor is the same.
Build up, break down, collapse. Even the beatless tracks, like “Pule,” follow this format, replacing clicks and whirrrrrs with a slappy xylophone-like melody that bleeds into a broken-hearted synth drone before falling apart entirely. Their obvious love of early electro is most apparent on album closer “Nuane,” where the broken-beat breakdancing intro leads us into a marching band dotted with those raw electronic horns Autechre keeps slipping into their work so we’ll know where all the dramatic bits are. Everything sounds like complete chaos, but it’s impossible not to bop in time, especially as things fall apart – again – into an almost standard hip hop beat, though one made out of the sounds of incomplete artificial intelligences.
Over a decade later, I still listen to Chiastic Slide quite regularly.
“IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE MOVING FURNITURE”
“Sickly sweet” is an apt phonetic pronunciation of this EP, a bridge between Chiastic Slide and LP5, and the beginning of a stylistic swing towards from a needling refinement of their sound into the sort of computery monster blur that dominates today. Heavy maths and all that.
But it’s more the palette they draw from than the way they put it together. Chiclisuite has a lot of the clicky slapping heard on later works, but it has that feel of a dozen hand drummers who practice together incessantly. The overly-punchy sound of that era is getting its first public appearance on Chiclisuite, and the right mixture of warm and cold isn’t fully corrected until 2001’s Confield. The highs are sometimes brutal, as with the percussive click and rhythmic whine in “Characi”. A good point of comparison would be “Ventolin,” but there’s no knowing smile. But “Krib” is nice as hell with it’s slow R&B swing and “rolling coin” hat/snare, and that dumps right into “Tilapia,” the sound closest to their live sets from late 90s. Gescom electro bass; slow bass drum counting off the bars in groups of four; syrup strings; slappy breakdown followed by a choppy synth; etc. But it’s so fucking precise!
Like they took tweezers to the damn thing.
And so a junction approaches. If you don’t admire precision, things are about to get difficult. As in “rough on you”. If you do admire precision, it will make your brain feel all sorts of wonderful. If you’re neither and/or nor, then this dichotomy has been wasted.
We begin our fade into puremathland, that wonderful place where everything sounds like algebra having a dance party for all the wrong reasons. “Boom boom boom fizzle fizzle nurr nurr” and whatnot inside the hard plastic grey case of LP5; the robot buttfucking jamboree so hot it doesn’t even need a real name.
This is where Autechre comes closest to applying the Dewey Decimal system to their track naming scheme. “Acroyear2” or “Rae” or “Fold4, Wrap5” or “Arch Carrier.” While that last one doesn’t quite invoke dusty and pragmatic progressives so much as the giant robot cartoon genre, it doesn’t exactly tell you a whole lot either.
But the weird thing is this album is filled with jazz funk barnburners. From opener to closer it’s “boom boom boom fizzle fizzle nurr nurrrrrr” and while they’re still working out some of the “fizzle fizzle” issues, the funky lead synth stuff really is jazzy. Things fold out into a syrupy weirdness between subsequent burnings of the barn, but only to give the listener a break. We’re not quite into electro-gooseberry flavor country just yet; instead we’re at the point where inventing new genre names is just about the only business we have left. It’s getting a bit hard to keep up with this new vocabulary. The bass drum on “777” sounds like a soft mellon being thrown at a trampoline. That’s exactly what it sounds like, and the track melts in around while it keeps time. It ends with a sludgy decline that quickly tears apart into a flutter; flutter gives way to “Rae,” the junior prom slow dance track of the album. The beat slows and breaks apart right into the part where you got stood up.
Wikipedia says this album is “stripped-down” but Wikipedia is ridiculously wrong.
Remember the album cover rule? Ok, look at this thing. It was designed on a machine, obviously. It cannot state its intentions more clearly.
Everything on here feels like a splintered, fractal moment captured by the cover art of EP7. (Note: not even close to being an actual fractal.) We see a lot more playing with smearing textures together, resulting in great big ripping sounds, like YHWH was pulling the neatest sounding dough apart with His hands. There’s a great example of this with “Left Blank,” where this mighty background roar insistently pushes its way into the foreground while the beat lurches and twitters around it before being subsumed. Even the “barnburners” – which now must be scare-quoted because there’s not necessarily a whole lot left to dance to – get shoved around by this seemingly newfound love of textures. “Nelton Sentinel” actually melts!
Only the album closer “Pir” manages to really keep things together, hearkening back to the simple days when computers loved robots and had tiny calculator babies. A saccarine sweet melody playing quite nicely with understated-but-grindy beats stuttering all around it.
THIS IS A THING
Yet another major stylistic shift comes with 2001’s Confield, which could not be more different from the last album proper, LP5. Retaining the thick textures of EP7, there’s a blurry, detuned haze all over Confield. There are no barnburners here, because there’s nothing remotely human left. People who thought Tri Repetae was “cold” and “inhuman” must simply have given up at this point.
Personally, I love the everloving shit out of this album. I love the fact that everything is smeared; that “Parhelic Triangle” sounds like a rock song of sorts, with a singing chorus and progressively stuttery smush of percussion meshing perfectly together and falling apart perfectly together as well; that album opener “VI Scoise Poise” is a beautiful nod to their previous excursions into ambient soup; that “Uviol” is so gently rough but “Lentic Catachresis” is uncompromising, sloppy and brutal; that “parhelic” catachresis AND Lentic are all real terms.
Confield‘s continued abandonment (or “subversion” if you insist on being ridiculous) of the beat is a theme we shall revisit shortly.
It makes you wonder what the forever doomed collaboration with Coil could have possibly done. Perhaps tamed the brutal edges of the millions of tiny crystalline shards tearing at your ears? The title track segues into “Dial,” one of those stepladder songs from their live sets from this decade; where the beat is a regular almost-march dotted by synth scales that are more jitter than note. You can feel them, but you can’t hear them. A bit upsetting.
With “Cap IV” we get a stab at pretty; actual voices smudged in the distance while a player piano dances and the beat tries so damn hard just to keep up. By the time the click and thump drums take the lead you can almost convince yourself that Jhon Balance is in the back somewhere, softly moaning and soaked in sweat; when the melody actually comes in you feel like someone’s just thrown you a rope a mere instant before the sharks show up to eat you.
As far as titles go, Draft 7.30 is worthless – it’s almost taunting in its obscurity. But the cover? Again, we must consider my iron-clad rule about Autechre covers; it looks like a complete mess, but carries some hints of the past, those older releases with graph paper mistakes and fake landscapes.
To be glib about it, Draft 7.30 is their prog-rock drummer concept album. Tired of being pushed back into the shadows and picking up second-rank venereal diseases from second rank groupies, the drummer finally shoves back and says “I too can be a rock star.”
Is the drummer a rock star here? No. The drummer is having trouble being funky when the beat is slow and having a whole lot of trouble being anything other than a complete mess when things get quick. Again, we see textures come to the rescue; “61e.CR” breaks from it’s heavy-handed broken-beat loop into something resembling a melodic hook, while the drummer gets briefly shoved into the background on tracks like “Tapr” and throwback track “Reniform Puls.” He even shows up to bring both noise and funk near the end of the album, with “V-Proc” being perhaps the most legitimately “funky” thing these guys have ever made.
Overall, the album is uneven. It’s very, very interesting – especially at high volume, where the little flourishes can be clearly heard – but it’s sloppy as well and their weakest release this decade.
An important point of order: Untilted is not untitled. I made this mistake for almost two months before being corrected by a friend. Regardless, most of the reviews of Untilted were functionally useless, perhaps in part due to laziness on the part of writers. A bigger issue is how to describe something that’s so far off the map of experiences within the electronic music arena without lapsing into lazy phrasing like “abstract.” Because here’s the deal – it’s not abstract. It’s wacky, maybe, and certainly jumps around; there are moments of abrasive violence not heard in any previous recording. But abstract? Even the rough opener of “LCC,” a drum machine workout where a rolling bass drum gets a nearly Reggaeton snare slapped across its bow, isn’t abstract. And hell, a few minutes later a plonky synth and a regular beat start an orderly march alongside a deep bass and some of those stunning horns Autechre throws in now and then. There’s a beginning and an end, though it’s certainly light on the middle. Toss on “Fermium” and see if you still find it to be “abstract,” as it’s the most straightforward track on Untilted.
I can sympathize with reviewers who found the album to be unenjoyable; my first impression was that they’d decided the rabbit hole where they hid from genre conventions wasn’t deep enough and brought in a backhoe instead. It’s a continuation from the space explored on Draft 7.30.
But subsequent listenings have convinced me that my initial impression was wrong, and that their intense and overwhelming attention to detail is why they’re still relevant after all these years. Far from being pointlessly abstract or emotionless, there’s simply a layer of abrasion that must be dealt with. Parts of Untilted are a nervous wreck – “Ipacial Section” starts with a jittery slap of beats and beeps before a regular snare bursts forth from what sounds to be an incredibly deep bathtub. The central rhythmic theme is repeated while other elements come flying in and out, all of which are very tense and very exciting. The sole test of electronic music should not be whether or not someone can dance to it or what time signature it is; rather it is the series of questions of any kind of music must answer- does it show you something? Does it take you places? Does it have a reason for being beyond pique?
Wait…what is this?
A pretty song?
A pretty song to open an Autechre album?
Why yes it is!
“Altibzz” is an organ-ish pluck ‘n drone that’s got a point, counterpoint and some other stuff stuck in there as well. In and out, most of the tracks on Quaristice are well under three minutes, all of which compress their past work into new, shortened forms. “Theswere” invokes the days of Chiastic Slide‘s melody-and-beat battles, but leaves out the beat; “WNSN” has an EP7 smudge but climbs out of the sludge pit with a straightforward rhythm; “Tankakern” carries a hint of the barnburner past but submerges it in a low-intensity bass drone; “paralel Suns” is, of all things, a dark ambient excursion, while “chenc9” is nearly drum n’ bass.
If you’ve dropped out of the Autechre game for a while (I imagine this game to be those multi-level “3D chess” sets from the 1970s) This would be an interesting place to drop back in. If you don’t like a track, hit the “next” button on your favorite music-stealing service and try another one.
There’s something here for everybody.