I first heard Autechre in 1998, when LP5 was released in the US on Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor‘s Nothing label, as part of a larger licensing arrangement with Warp Records, the duo’s UK home. Nothing put out a sampler CD called Nothing Changes, which was affixed to an issue of XLR8R magazine I bought. I was not a regular XLR8R reader; I bought it for the CD. The disc contained two tracks each by Autechre, The Bowling Green, Meat Beat Manifesto, Plaid, Plug, and Squarepusher, all of whom were unfamiliar to me. I was immediately impressed by Autechre and Plug. It took me a while to come around on Plaid and Squarepusher. I still don’t much like Meat Beat Manifesto, and have never heard a whole album by The Bowling Green.
Autechre’s music didn’t sound like it was made by human beings. I don’t mean that in a “synths are cold” way. I mean that the logic of their tracks’ construction was impenetrable to me. Listening to their music was like staring at a circuit board. The rhythms weren’t 4/4 like the techno I’d heard. They didn’t seem to have any forward momentum at all, though repetition could sometimes be detected. The synth melodies had no linearity—they were just little bursts of notes, and conventional harmony was totally absent. No single element seemed to have anything to do with the others. One synth pattern would be staticky and crunchy, while another sounded like an electric harpsichord and a third was like something from a John Carpenter movie soundtrack, but playing something he would never play. Meanwhile, there was a drum machine making noises, but this was not music anybody could dance to. Humans didn’t come with enough limbs, and the ones we had were placed improperly. It sounded to me like music machines would make for the entertainment of other machines. (I later found out that Warp had released a compilation called Artificial Intelligence, information that made perfect sense to me.) Their track titles, which read like strings of random letters and numbers, only solidified the impression that this was posthuman music.
I bought LP5, and when EP7 came out a few months later I got that too. Then I backtracked and got Tri Repetae, which in the US was bundled with a second disc containing tracks that had originally made up two EPs, Anvil Vapre and Garbage. I never bought Chiastic Slide, because it wasn’t licensed for US sale and the import was too expensive. (A friend of mine got it, and I heard it through him. The dominant impression I got was of a series of crunching sounds.) I loved all of it, even if I often put off listening to it in favor of this or that new death metal or jazz CD. When I was in the mood for Autechre, nothing else would do. So I kept buying each new release—the Gantz Graf EP, which I didn’t much like, except for the final song, “Cap.IV”; the two Peel Session EPs; and Confield, which I loved. The first track, “VI Scose Poise,” was genuinely beautiful while remaining as inhuman as ever—indeed, many reviewers claim Confield is the group’s least human effort. But I sort of lost interest with Draft 7.30, which was beautifully packaged (instead of a CD booklet, it came with a bunch of little cards with very pretty swirling black-white-and-gray abstract images printed on them, like a 3-D CGI rendering of Franz Kline’s paintings) but musically made almost no impression on me. Thinking about it now, I have no idea what it sounds like and no interest in listening to it.
Draft 7.30 broke my streak of Autechre fandom. I didn’t buy their 2005 CD Untilted; I eventually heard it, but wasn’t enticed into paying serious attention. The same thing happened with Quaristice in 2008. In that case, there was just too much material to grapple with, even had I been in the mood; there was the album, which had 20 tracks all on its own, never mind the limited edition 2CD version which offered 11 more tracks, and then the Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae bundle of tracks, released online-only and adding up to more than two hours of music (“Perlence subrange 6-36” runs 58:35). I never even really considered it.
The duo released two albums this year, Oversteps and Move of Ten. I’ve had them in my hard drive for months, but never listened to them until recently. Now that I have, I feel like I’ve been won over again—and more importantly, I appreciate Autechre’s music in a completely different way than I ever did before.
Oversteps is long—14 tracks, just shy of 75 minutes. But it’s some of the most beautiful music I can remember hearing from Autechre. A lot of the melodies are quite lush, and they’re right on the surface, not buried beneath hiss and crunching circuitry; “Treale” is practically their equivalent to Art of Noise‘s “Moments in Love.” There are moments of aggression, but a long stretch of pure beauty in the disc’s second half, starting with “Treale” and running through “os veix3,” “O=0,” “d-sho qub” and “st epreo,” which is where things start to pick up more energy and verge on aggression. But the album’s last two tracks, “krYlon” and “Yuop,” are truly lovely. The former has a melody line that sounds almost like Chinese court music to my ear, while “Yuop” reminds me of a Tangerine Dream soundtrack from the ’80s, remixed to be just slightly unsettling. The album ends with a slow fade to crunching static that sounds like a microphone’s been left out in the rain. It’s almost…romantic.
Move of Ten is shorter—10 tracks in 48 minutes—and starts off hard; “Etchogon-S” is built around beats that hit like slamming metal doors. “nth Dafuseder.b” sounds like a collage of sounds from inside a submarine, turned into a dance track. But there’s more Oversteps-style lushness to be heard on “no border” and “ylm0,” the latter of which sounds like something from Radiohead‘s electronic period a decade ago. It seems to me (and maybe other listeners were tuned in to this for years, and I’m very, very late to the party—that wouldn’t surprise me a bit) that Autechre aren’t trying to be the future anymore; I hear more and more of the past in their work. It reminds me of the artificial intelligence in William Gibson‘s book Count Zero, grabbing junk out of space and arranging it in little Joseph Cornell-style boxes. Autechre are picking through thirty-five years’ worth of electronic music, everything from Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream forward, and constructing collages that may seem inscrutable at first but eventually reveal themselves as genuine and heartfelt displays of passion no different from a Sonny Rollins saxophone solo built on quotations from show tunes.