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Autechre – Oversteps (2010)

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Oversteps is a brief moment of consonance in the abstraction that is contemporary Autechre. The funny thing is that it manages to be both… in a way that’s separate from my usual death metal fodder. Like most of the Autechre-listening public, I blame Max/MSP for this, and indeed, Oversteps does have something of an algorithmic angle to it. It has a sense of rhythm and melody to it that’s unpredictable and yet surprisingly self consistent. It’s also an album of stark contrasts, ranging from rigidly structured etudes (…maybe just “known(1)”) to almost stream of consciousness level soundscapes. My experience with it has been defined by the contrast between its unusually friendly exterior and its difficult to parse writing and structure.

A surface listen to Oversteps will at least make you aware of its production – as far as I’m concerned, this is the smoothest and richest Autechre has sounded since 1994. In an ideal universe, I would describe it in synesthesia-evoking food terms. Most of this comes down to Autechre’s decision to build songs out of clean sounding, heavily tonal (and occasionally overtonal?) instruments. Percussion and noise here are usually very limited, although a few tracks buck this trend and offer something nominally resembling beats for your listening pleasure. The overall effect, at least if you’re anything like me, is that your attention is going to focus almost entirely on the generative melodies Autechre has provided you.

Oversteps certainly manages to push its melodic strategies in every direction possible. Songs here vary widely in structure despite generally falling prey to the eventual urge to spit forth a torrent of rapidfire tones. The overall pacing is probably more consistent, though – some Autechre recordings have major outliers in song length; this isn’t one of them. My overall impression was that the album actually began to feel more diverse as I kept absorbing it, and I would put this down to the structural experimentation. Sometimes, this works very well – the aforementioned “known(1)”  sounds completely unlike anything else Autechre has done, and wins major points for its rigorous counterpoint and harmonic complexity. Other times, perhaps, not as much; Oversteps is weakest in its looser moments, when songs fail to capture this sense of logical progression. This may be more of a general Autechre thing, since I tend to complain if their material starts feeling stagnant, but it’s still worth noting here due to the melodic focus.

Ultimately, any band that releases “known(1)” is a winner by my standards; Oversteps would be worth it if the rest of the album was garbage. Luckily, it’s not. You might find this album especially useful if you’re into the band’s earlier, more melodic material, and you think need a foot in the door to appreciate the more abstract stuff. Anyone who’s already attenuated to that part of Autechre will find plenty of it here, too.

Highlights: “ilanders”, “known(1)”, “Treale”, “krYlon”

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Autechre – Chiastic Slide (1997)

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With a discography as sonically diverse as Autechre’s, you can easily find some forsaken soul to declare each recording an outlier. If you want to apply that to Chiastic Slide, then you should zero in on its ‘dirty’, heavily sample and noise driven soundscapes. Compared to the cleaner sounds of the albums before and after it, Chiastic Slide is a sonic anomaly for sure (even if the accompanying Envane EP shares its auditory patina), but the actual songwriting on here is roughly comparable, hitting a good midpoint between the nominally accessible Tri Repetae and nominally more difficult LP5. In the end, it got socketed into the discography, but not without a lot of spirited fan discussion about what role about what sort of role going full Chiastic Slide had in Autechre’s discography.

The funny thing about Chiastic Slide is that it actually isn’t all that chiastic – i.e there is not much on this album that is truly symmetrical. The song structures, for instance, tend more towards evolution than repetition. In fact, this album’s songs showcase some of the most striking and abrupt transitions of Autechre’s discography, at least in this relatively early stage. After all, it starts off with “Cipater”, which for all purposes fades in an entirely new song over its initial set of musical ideas. Some of the tracks admittedly develop more organically, but at the very least, beginning with the abrupt mood shifts and thunks is a major departure from before.

Autechre has never been a heavy band, at least by the standards of modern death metal, but the overall more abrasive, nastier sounds on here have in themselves been a major draw for me. As mentioned, “Cipater” has its thunks, and is followed up with straight up static noise (“Rettic Ac”). The more overtly sampled soundscapes here are suited to this; even if Autechre has done much with distorted and chopped up samples in their lifetime, it’s rare that they push the idea so far. This noisy aesthetic even leaks into the calmer and more soothing tracks – “Pule” in particular never reaches any explosive peaks, but its ever growing moans and creaks under the surface make for the sort of vivid synesthetic imagery that Autechre channels at their peak. In general, this sort of contrast makes for interesting tracks; I am definitely a fan.

In the end, I’m not sure if I would put the entirety of Chiastic Slide on a pedestal. The main problem is that some of the tracks in the middle drag on without much payoff. However, when this album excels, it reaches high peaks, and those should more than pay the cost of admission.

Highlights: “Cipater”, “Cichli”, “Pule”, “Nuane”

Autechre – Garbage EP (1994)

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I told you I was going to go the route of the filthy casual in future Autechre coverage (even though I ended up listening to Confield too); and to be honest, I went on a huge binge after experiencing LP5. This longer-than-some-studio-albums EP is certainly interesting, and it falls straight into a brief period of especially ambient and downtempo work by this band. Given that Garbage is supposedly culled from the detritus of Autechre’s 2nd studio album (1994’s Amber), you can imagine how this content might share some mood and mind with its full length counterpart, but where Amber was occasionally too subdued for its own good, the balance here is better.

Garbage is vintage accessible Autechre at their finest, even managing by virtue of its reduced length to avoid the filler problem that plagues most of the band’s full lengths. Everything here is warm, analog flavored, with plenty of the reverb and delay effects that seem to be emphasized on the band’s early material. Like your average Autechre album (or for that matter, a nice swathe of electronic music), the tracks here rely very heavily on their choice of sounds to distinguish themselves; compare this to musicians who don’t change up their instrumentation on every track. Furthermore, the average track here yet again emphasizes slowly evolving soundscapes over especially rigorous sound structure. In general, you should not expect huge sound/structural differences from Autechre’s trademark sound.

If you ask me, Garbage also features something of an inter-track narrative that isn’t present on most of the band’s material. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but over time the material on here progresses from being rhythm and progression oriented to complete ambience and repetition by the time the last chords of “Vletr” fade away. I can’t really think of any other albums by the band that have that level of long-term cohesion, although some of the EPs come close (1995’s Anvil Vapre in particular). This makes for a very different experience than the rest of their discography when you listen to it in full. This is, more than anything else from Autechre, something you should sit down and listen to in one go, which at the very least is more convenient than otherwise due its compactness.

To be fair, Garbage‘s strengths do run kind of exactly counter to my expected tastes, but given how often I’ve been praising music for doing things I wouldn’t expect myself to stereotypically like, I might have to say that my interests are broader than they first seem.

Highlights: Everything. Maybe “PIOB” in particular.

Autechre – LP5 (1998)

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Now this appraisal might become entirely irrelevant and useless if I ever get around to Confield, but at least compared to previous Autechre material, LP5 is “Expert Mode Unlocked” given tangible audible form. At least from an aural perspective it comes off even more abstract and artificial than before, although repeated listening has clued me in to just how much of the band’s previous techniques and arsenal remain. Now, I realize this is a snooty and even elitist way of describing how I’ve engaged with LP5, but bear with me – after all, I might end up reviewing one of Autechre’s earliest albums at some point, and I need an excuse to (most likely inaccurately) work in the phrase “filthy casual”.

For better or worse, there’s a great deal of musical substance on here that I’ve never even considered trying to incorporate into my own work. I guess that sort of makes this album an antithesis of self, just like the last album I wrote about. For one, the emphasis on ‘ambient’, slowly evolving soundscapes that I picked up on from Tri Repetae is still around; I’d go as far as claiming these are even more necessary since consonant phrases are on the decline here. Some of these tracks arguably have pop style hooks; I don’t think it’s the main intent, especially since the sort of modal, more conventionally structured songwriting I’ve heard on previous Autechre albums is hard to find here.  Instead, Autechre seemingly relies more heavily on percussive rhythms this time around, and furthermore does some very strange things with tempo. I kind of want to make a song using the constant BPM change gimmick of “Fold4, Wrap5”, although incorporating such a thing into the sort of music I actually like to write could be … difficult.

If there’s one thing that Autechre definitely does well on LP5, it’s that they nail the ambiences. As I’ve said before, that’s definitely not easy to do, but at it’s best, LP5 has spawned some incredibly vivid mental images in my head. The architecture metaphors people like to throw in when talking about this band are at least apt, although sometimes the slow evolution and attention to transitions does something especially amazing, like briefly turning “Drane2” (arguably the hit single of this album) into the world’s most hellish call center about 2/3rds of its length in. It helps that that track in particular has one of the densest soundscapes; most of the tracks here are a bit sparser and take more time to sink in, but you can still get some sort of storytelling potential out of them.

To be honest, it didn’t take me as long to value LP5 as highly as I do now; it’s not perfect, and nor is my understanding of it, but the depths that remain are certainly worth plumbing.

Highlights: “777”, “Under Boac”, “Drane2”

Autechre – Tri Repetae (1995)

folderDoes this album reflect Autechre exploring programmed sounds and perhaps the occasional glitch? Probably. Writing about electronic music is a rather different experience than writing about metal, since the intents of the musicians often differ dramatically. Tri Repetae belongs to the ’90s British IDM/ambient techno boom, but it stands apart from even much of what I’ve listened to from it (mind you, I’ve only scratched the surface) by how much it embraces an artificial, cold, structured aesthetic. Very analog at times, or at least I think it is, and if you’ve been reading the words of a certain Australian fellow who doesn’t actually exist, you might end up believing that a person’s beliefs and biases are useful information.

Anyways, Tri Repetae relies quite heavily on repetition; repeat is even in its name if you can’t spell! Songs here have this tendency of starting with one simple loop, then gradually adding more up until some point, dwelling on them for a few minutes, and then gradually fading out in the opposite fashion. Between tracks, there are significant variances in pacing, sound density, and sonic texture, but I’d still say Autechre sticks to their guns throughout this album. There are not particularly many unique musical phrases explored per track, but I’m fairly sure that’s intentional.

Even with the repetitive, trancelike nature of their chosen songwriting method, Autechre has plenty of room to explore aesthetic permutations (How often have you read that before on this blog? For better or worse I have reduced the task of music reviews to a formula). Some tracks emphasize hookish melody, such as “Clipper” and “Eutow”, which allow relatively dense-sounding content to rise from their loop-stacking. Often, however, Tri Repetae tends towards sparser sounds, sometimes by virtue of favoring some frequencies, sometimes by focusing more on percussion, and occasionally just droning to the point of tedium. I’d like to say this album suffers from Kraftwerk syndrome, but unlike to the album I review in the link, I feel these songs are actually better when they’re more accessible. This could be due to Autechre not really dipping into blatant pop music tropes, but regardless, it’s a strong departure from my usual “experimentation = good” claims.

Repeated listens have lead me to believe that this album has reached some level of merge between its aesthetics and its songwriting techniques, which does bode well for it being a unified, coherent album. As mentioned before, it also succeeds in elaborating on its basic ideas without relying on aesthetic changes to remain memorable. Ironically, my favorite songs on here are the ones whose aesthetics appeal most to my listening sensibilities. On the other hand, I find much of this album too sparse for frequent listening, which is saying something given my occasional affinity for minimalist recordings. You could say I’m looking for a denser soundscape.

Highlights: “Dael”, “Clipper”, “Eutow”, “C/Pach”