Music by machines for people
Will all of my music blogs be 90s nostalgia? Signs point to yes.
A silly meme went around last week asking for a perfect record that came out when you were 16. My initial answer was Weezer’s Blue Album or Jeff Buckley’s Grace, which are indeed both perfect. But then I realized that Autechre’s Amber was from the same year. I wouldn’t find Amber until I was in college several years later. But Autechre is my favorite electronic music band, and relistening to them this week reminded me not only of how much I love them but how sneakily influential they are.
I first heard Autechre in my friend’s dingy student apartment, where he had rigged up a hi-fi listening room. He threw on “Cipater” and blew my mind. I loved electronic music and all sorts of experimental noise, but I had never heard anything like this before. The beat stitched together grating, hyperagressive percussion in a disorienting stereo mix. A pause for a couple of synthetic hi-hats introduced a spare bassline and simple four-note melody. Somehow, through an unexpected ritardando, the song morphed into a shuffling dirge for a coda. I was sold. This was my new favorite band.
I started buying everything Autechre had made. After I bought the recently released Chiastic Slide, I found Amber, the perfect record I mentioned at the top. Amber is also Autechre’s most accessible record. It’s cold and dark and has heavy industrial influences. All of the sounds emanate from inhuman synthesizers and overly reverbed drum machines. Unlike the drum and bass from last week’s blog, no one is going to try to cover Amber with a live band.
As they went on, Autchere just got more aggressive and inaccessible. They would take the melodic parts from Amber and push them further into the background while making the percussion more aggressive and disorienting. There are few samples other than mangled vocals that sound like tortured androids. The beats sort of repeat until they don’t. The melodies and rhythms find ways to work together even though they have nothing to do with each other.
As electronic music became more mainstream, Autechre got progressively weirder. Their run from 1995 to 2001 pushed the envelope of what could be considered dance music. The EP Anvil Vapre opens with long bursts of harsh, distorted white noise. No rhythm, no melody, just static. These bursts repeat as the driving motif of the song.
My favorite tracks from this period were the ones with pensive melodies, like “Cichli” from Chiastic Slide or “Rae” from LP5. Somewhere in the noise was something pretty and melancholy to latch onto. Here’s a playlist with some of my favorite Autechre tracks from the 90s:
By their EP7 in 1999, the melodic moments were nearly gone. They finally lost me with their 2001 release, Confield. I tried so many times to get into Confield and failed. I even tried to go back and listen this week. I just can’t get into it. Not only are the melodic moments gone, but the propulsive, head-nodding back beats were stripped away too. Confield leaves an amorphous mix of percussion and synthetic sound, no longer with anything recognizable to latch onto. I know some people consider this record genius genius. In some ways, Autechre had found the limit they had been searching for.
And even Autechre acknowledged their limits. I saw Autechre in 2001 shortly after Conflied came out, in a parking garage in Detroit. I braced myself for a barrage of disjointed, patternless nonsense. Instead, they ran with a rave set. The crowd went nuts.1
Though they aimed for maximal inaccessibility, Autechre’s sound slowly crept into mainstream music. You can already hear it in Radiohead’s “Idioteque” from Kid A. SOPHIE was an outspoken Autechre fan who produced her music with a similarly cold, sample-less palette. You can hear it in her collaborations with Charli XCX, like “Out of My Head.” And I’m sure it’s just me, but I hear the Autechral influence in Rosalia’s “La Combi Versace.”
Though I haven’t been as obsessed with Autechre since I graduated college, they always pop back up with something weird, alien, and yet so compelling. There’s something apt about their cover of acolyte SOPHIE’s BIPP made the track more accessible than the original. Autechre always makes things difficult.
Just to remind us that the Internet can still be awesome, I found someone’s bootleg of this set cached on the Internet Archive. It’s absolute nonsense in the best possible way.