This is now my second attempt to write about Autechre, something that feels risky once you recognise how hard it is to do without seeming like an utter arse. The work of the Rochdale-reared duo doesn’t really lend itself well to the format of pretentious blog posts, something Pitchfork writers are stuck dealing with each time they resurface. Obsessive fanboys of the duo often get mad at the inaccurate narratives peddled by the music press in reviews or features, understandably raging at the same three or four anecdotes about a lack of any real melody, absurd album lengths, and a supposed absence of humanity within their (insanely sprawling) creative output. It often seems like journalists are unable to accurately capture what makes the group so compelling, generally falling into the habit of portraying them as stoic mad scientists working in seclusion to redefine the limits of music, or just as some annoying eejits passing off computer fart noises as high art.
Neither description really hits the mark and this distortion of what makes their work stand out is what had me so hesitant to initially cover them. What exactly is it about Autechre’s work that eludes annoying English majors? Why is it so easy for certain people to get so utterly obsessed with their work? Will writing this mean I can listen to literally any other music? I don’t think there’s any clear answers to these questions, but part of me is just saying that so posters on /r/Autechre don’t shout at me.
Something I feel is often omitted from pieces covering Autechre is their utter lack of pretention – the group aren’t intentionally setting out to redefine what counts as music and realising as such makes their work a lot more approachable. I think this attitude was best captured in a 2008 interview with Sean Booth, during which he was quizzed about the group’s usage of generative synthesis. “It just gets massively overblown because people think it’s dead interesting, but it’s not is it? To me it’s just like a bunch of arpeggiators plugged into each other, going off and we’ve been doing that since Lego Feet days”. The duo take a refreshingly casual approach to their work, something I feel is influenced on some level by the culture of rave they initially immersed themselves in.
Now I’m not saying that their work isn’t experimental, but instead that their experimentation is unshackled from the posturing implied by the (deeply cursed) term “intelligent dance music”. Autechre are so interesting as they’re closer to boyracers than scientists – pushing their software and synths to the limit with tongue placed firmly in cheek. The lads started out making dance tunes to fill out their mixtapes and that ethos arguably stuck, allowing their eccentricities to shine through without annoying the life out of the listener. At times you can nearly feel the two musicians joking amongst themselves, giving us the finger as they evoke new soundscapes. “All the best tunes took the piss a bit”, as Sean put it.
This casual approach taken by Autechre ironically peaks with one of their most ambitious projects. ‘NTS Sessions’ is an insanely sprawling release, consisting of four discs and lasting for roughly eight hours – something that naturally scares the shite out of sane human beings. A lot of the commentary surrounding the record focuses in on this supposed inaccessibility, presenting it as some experimental magnum opus intended to be consumed in one solitary, life changing sitting. ‘NTS’ is misrepresented as the logical conclusion of their thirty years of work, if anything just as it makes us feel a bit cooler as we write walls of text.
I can’t help but feel that this common perception does nothing beyond scaring off potential listeners – ‘NTS Sessions’ was initially broadcast as a collection of radio shows and arguably comes into its own when you view it through that (relatively laid-back) lens. The group approaches each disc like an extended Peel Session, with more exploratory pieces being balanced out with more informal work. A fair few of the tracks played in each session feel like attempts to make straight-up techno, something that excites me a concerning amount. The group aren’t intentionally driving us insane with abstract tunes, it’s just that being around for the peak of rave melted their brains to the point where pushing at the limits of music is a natural, second-nature habit. Autechre have had their creative energy unshackled in a thoroughly unfeigned way – leading to work I’m terminally incapable of shutting up about.
pretending you’re a penniless artist from 30 years ago
As I’ve tried to lazily imply throughout this piece, Autechre’s sonic progression feels inherently tied to the culture of rave – even if they went on to rebel against its subsequent criminalisation and commercialisation. The two teenagers took an almost zealous approach to the new forms of music arising out of the scene, seeming genuinely disappointed that others were more interested in taking pills and partying than weird synth noises. As Sean put it in a recent interview, “[ecstasy] opened this music up to a lot of people who weren’t really interested in it. Neither for electro nor for house. Suddenly they all came to the clubs. And I saw them there and realized they were only there for the drugs. That sucked”. For better or for worse, Autechre were true believers in the anti-establishment, “do it yourself” attitude that defined the early rave scene – something that shaped their later discontents.
In an anecdote I found fairly funny, Booth railed against “kids who spend £350 or £400 on a cloned 606”, stating “what the hell are you doing with a 606, cloned at that? Are you going to get it because then you can pretend you’re a penniless artist from 30 years ago? […] If there had been laptops for the money back then, I wouldn’t have even looked at the damn 606”. It’d be easy to write Booth off for being a snob or a boomer but I feel like this rant hints towards something far more interesting. Autechre are such a fascinating group specifically because they started making music at the exact point where you could naturally scale upwards from cloned 606s to the batshit insanity of Max/MSP. The group mirror a specific cultural moment, with their anger reflecting the fact that said moment has passed.
‘Ghosts of My Life’ by Mark Fisher is a book that ruined my life, if anything just because of ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’. With this essay the late cultural critic attempts to capture the artistic stasis we’ve been stuck in, arguing that neoliberalism limits our imagination from making similar leaps to those unleashed by movements like punk and rave (and their subsequent selling-out). “Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed”. The space for young, working-class artists to experiment has been stripped away by those in power, leading to eternal return of the same.
This stasis is captured in an infamous thought experiment my friends are sick of hearing about. “Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be”. I was born roughly a month after ‘Gantz Graf’ was released, the fact it still sounds so utterly futuristic should be actively surreal. On some level I should be rebelling against Autechre and making them look like squares, not writing a weird puff piece about them.
Building on this idea of stasis, something I’ve found fascinating is our collective inability to conceive of the “next Autechre”. I don’t necessarily mean this in an IDM 2.0 sense, but instead a piece of art that takes a similar leap in sound and attitude. What form would the 2021 equivalent of an album that jumps as far as ‘Confield’ did from the generic house tunes that annoyed the duo even take? It’s very hard for those around me to imagine the answer to that question and that feels indicative of something larger. Autechre feels like the swansong of an era defined by sonic leaps, with their ascent occuring just as the neoliberal system was taking root in the UK. It’s irrationally sad that Fisher never got to write about the work of the duo, if anything just because I can’t end this train of thought coherently.
My habit of being constantly contrarian has lead to be spending a lot of time defending ‘Oversteps’, an ambient detour in the group’s discography that fans love to hate on. The 2010 release is one of Autechre’s calmer moments, but also one that offers interesting introspection – the lush melodies that lurked behind the sonic insanity of ‘Quaristice’ are on full display, creating one of the most emotionally evocative records of all time. Sean and Rob have talked in the past about the expressive nature of music, stating that “if a certain reverb changing size would suggest a cave changing shape, bring it on” – this record is so important as the reverbs changing size make me cry like a child.
The proper draw of ‘Oversteps’ (and arguably a lot of weird electronic music in general) isn’t experimentation, but instead emotion. Autechre’s work means so much to me specifically on account of it’s ability to capture the full spectrum of feeling that makes weird synth noises so fascinating – be it the elation of taking the piss with your friends, the utter confusion of being exposed to something new, or the dread and yearning that haunts tracks like ‘known(1)’. The group were initially obsessed with the work of British post-industrial outfit (and power couple) Coil and that influence very clearly shines through – with the lads perfectly channeling their ability to present listeners with something simultaneously unique yet violated, driving me insane in the process. Instead of overwhelming us through the use of percussion they opt to do similar with melody, inducing an insane rush of warmth out of warped (yet pretty) soundscapes. Words elude me when talking about ‘Oversteps’ (or Autechre’s discography as a whole) – perhaps that’s why it’s taken on such a profound place in my life.