Screw dancing about architecture — translating the music of Autechre into evocative prose is no less challenging than baking a soufflé that captures the grandeur of scaling Mt. Everest. Perhaps a legion of intelligent yet charismatic robots, instructed in an original language that fuses Esperanto and Czech and taught poetry by Gertrude Stein, might begin to communicate the English duo’s approach to timbre and structure. But you’d also have a bunch of really annoying robots to contend with. Quite frankly, you’re better off owning the Autechre catalog, and playing the records to anyone curious who’ll listen.
Manchester’s Rob Brown and Sean Booth met as teens in 1987. Discovering an extraordinarily similar taste in records, they immersed themselves in early UK hip-hop culture. When the computerized funk of electro gave way to formulaic, sampled-based rap tracks, they delved into acid house and imaginative strains of industrial. While all three genres were aimed at the dance floor, Brown and Booth’s fascination was more primal. They loved sounds for their own sake, the odder the better.
That said, for the most part, the duo’s avowed musical preferences exerted little discernible influence on even their earliest recorded works, which were created using such rudimentary tools as a Roland 606 and a cheap Casio sampler. Cavity Job fell through the cracks due to questionable label practices, but (combined with the pair’s pirate radio show) brought them into the fold at Sheffield’s Warp label, home to such burgeoning iconoclasts as Richard James (alias Aphex Twin et al) and The Black Dog.
Incunabula, then, is a stunning debut. While the isolated sounds deployed throughout wouldn’t seem out of place on a vintage Depeche Mode release, Autechre’s rejection of predictable order liberates them from the sheltering safety of Western pop traditions, spotlighting the “unnatural” aspects of these lowly synthesizer settings. Freed from any discernible harmonic rule, melodies seem to unwind with a will of their own, while the rhythms beneath crisscross without ever lining up neatly. Flashes of their electro heritage occasionally peek through (“Basscadet”); “Lowride” even incorporates a slippery jazz riff. But Incunabula functions primarily according to its own mandates. The subsequent Basscadet EP is the closest Autechre has ever come to a conventional single release, featuring five versions of the album track, including interpretations by Beaumont Hannant and Seefeel’s Mark Clifford.
Because they color exclusively outside the lines (heck, they barely recognize ’em), Autechre’s records are powerfully evocative even without a specific emotional agenda; Booth and Brown avoid intentionally communicating any in their compositions. The three-cut Anti EP, engineered to register protest against England’s Criminal Justice Bill (which sought to clamp down on rave culture by outlawing gatherings of people listening to dance music), is a rare instance in which Autechre responds to external stimuli. “Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can be played at both 45 and 33 revolutions under the proposed new law,” announces the seal on the disc. As a study aid, the track is illuminating, because — even under such strictures — pinning down precisely what Autechre does, and doesn’t do, is an elusive challenge.
Amber may, on first exposure, bear much in common with the debut, Autechre’s second album is a further retreat into their own world (although unlike the misanthropic James, they seem to take pains to make their extraterrestrial environment inviting to aural explorers). The overall tone is more tranquil than its predecessor, but the tracks also exhibit greater reluctance to set down anything like roots. Playful numbers like “Slip” constantly change shape in subtle ways; mapping out any sort of hard-and-fast document of Amber, even with a sheet of time codes, would yield bizarre topography — hence, the rolling sand dunes depicted on the jacket.
Any tenuous connections Autechre retained to traditional music were effectively severed with three 1995 releases. “Second Bad Vibel” kicks off Anvil Vapre with a harsh, grating blast reminiscent of the sound made when a turntable arm misses the vinyl and the needle drags along the slipmat. The rhythms on these four tracks are Autechre’s hardest — hitting and combine with the unnerving melodic textures into their most confrontational release. Garbage (released two weeks earlier) is gentler, spreading musical ideas out in a more minimalist fashion than usual. Tri Repetae (which reprises nothing from either EP) dovetails the two approaches, yielding a murky and disorienting — yet nevertheless enticing — album that surpasses everything else in their already formidable body of work. The US-only double- disc Tri Repetae++ compiles all three discs in one convenient package.
On Chiastic Slide, Booth and Browne make Oval and Microstoria look conventional, yet without letting their processes overshadow the alien charms of their abstract assemblages. Trying to accurately describe the elaborately integrated elements at play in cuts like “Cipater,” with its mercurial rhythmic foundation, chattering percussion and other-worldly timbres, invites writing that falls somewhere between cyber-fiction and modern dance criticism. Suffice it to say that the noises of Chiastic Slide sport textures so vibrant they approach the tactile.
The Cichli Suite and Envane EPs use album cuts as their departure points yet transform them in ways that have nothing to do with conventional notions of remixing. The former disc reconstructs “Cichli” into a 30- minute, five-part epic. The unique four “quarters” of Envane manage to isolate different vague aspects of the character of “Nvane,” without being apparent about which musical materials (if any) are being recycled.
Working with Darrell Fitton, Rob Hall, and sometimes their former flatmate Andy Maddocks, Booth and Brown have produced a handful of EPs and 12-inches under the moniker Gescom. The pair has also remixed artists as diverse as St. Etienne, Beaumont Hannant and DJ Food — often beyond recognition.