In 1994, my 20-years-young self was sat on a plane at Heathrow on a stop-over before heading home from a youth orchestra tour when onto the plane bounded my viola playing friend Nick, who had just dashed into Soho and back (ah, youth!). In his hands was a CD that he insisted I had to listen to that very minute. I listened, and my mind was duly blown.
The CD that Nick Wales (shortly to form Coda) had pressed on me was the Anti EP by Autechre, and track three’s incredible non-repetitive programming was unlike anything I’d heard before. It would be a few more months, though, before I became aware of the real depth of this group. I was obsessed at the time with the sampled beats and atmospheres of Future Sound of London, and the Warp label’s (comparatively) ascetic ambience took a while to sink in.
By 1995, when the Garbage EP and then the incredible Anvil Vapre EP came out, IDM was in full stride, and I was beginning to be able to put this music into some kind of context. Working back through the prettiness of Amber and Incunabula, it’s possible to see why the crunchy beats and distortions they began introducing here were Autechre’s first Dylan-goes-electric moment – and there are still those for whom “Autechre-like” means Amber, or nothing later than Tri Repetae. Further down the track there would be “Where have the melodies gone?”, “You call these beats?” and “This is just random noise!”, but one thing that’s guaranteed with Autechre is that the more you persevere, the more their music reveals. Follow them deep enough, and your perceptions are permanently changed.
1997’s Envane EP and the following album Chiastic Slide took Autechre further into the crunchy, distorted territory indicated by tracks from Anvil Vapre. The hip-hop and electro-influenced beats combined with pastoral melodies in a way that was deliciously disorienting. As the beats fade out in ‘draun quarter’ and the interlocking melodies lie exposed for nearly three more minutes, there’s a nostalgic beauty equalled only by Boards of Canada. Months later, with Chiastic Slide, all the elements from the EP were already extended and mutated with a technical prowess that would be merely impressive, except that it’s integrated with an equal musicality that is evocative of alien landscapes, emotions and narratives. OK, being a science fiction fan might have helped, but listening to the aforementioned ‘draun quarter’ puts me on a train heading out of some northern England industrial city, as it gives way to ancient rainy countryside.
Listening through this period I was struck by how organic and improvisatory Autechre’s music was beginning to sound. Here was meticulously programmed electronic music with humanity infused throughout. The Cichlisuite EP later that year seemed to draw back on the crunchiness, and appeared backwards-looking except for ‘Krib”s glass-on-glass rhythm. But by 1998 we can see it’s a stepping-stone for the rhythmic complexity and further-buried melodies of LP5. The duo’s restlessness and musical talent shine through, with harmonic patterns increasingly divorced from convention, and ‘fold4,wrap5’ manages lasting value from a gimmick, in which differently-paced melodies and beats knit together as the tempo inexorably slows, creating a state of simultaneous stasis and change.
And so it is with Autechre, as the listener is increasingly encouraged (or forced) to find beauty in more abrasive sounds, more deeply-hidden melodies, more abstracted rhythms. Part of the pleasure of Autechre is the challenge it brings to the listener. The reward of studying a musical work that initially seems nonsensical or unpleasant, to the point of understanding and unlocking its secrets, is much like discovering a whole new region of the colour spectrum. Getting into early-“90s jungle involved realising how to listen to it – how to feel the flow of the basslines versus the frenetic beats; clicking with the Pixies, Beefheart or Ornette Coleman requires a similar flash of understanding, reconfiguring your ears. Autechre seem to do that to us with almost every release.
In the 10 years since the sequence I described above, we’ve had EP7‘s album-length amalgamation of LP5‘s melodies, Chiastic Slide‘s crunch, and an expanded sound-palette including elements like a randomised MC and sampled kettle drums. Then in 2001, Confield‘s eschewing of much in the way of head-noddable regular rhythm seemed to confound a lot of the fan-base, despite containing gems such as the Necks-like ‘VI scose poise’ and the bubbling mud-flats of ‘uviol’. Gantz Graf switched back to buried melodies, with tumbling scatter-shot beats that could be overly relentless when not offset by diaphanous melodies. Draft 7.30 dropped the intensity somewhat but was no less challenging and chaotic, making the headnoddery of ‘V-proc’ a surprising gift near the end. It also brought a strange thinness of production in places. 2005’s Untilted brought it all back to the beats, its hallmark being long tracks that shifted gears in the middle so that one’s favourite section was often the second half of something else.
And so, confounding expectations is so central to Autechre’s modus operandi that the expectation confounded with the release of Quaristice is that it will once again represent a move into new territories. Instead we get an accomplished blend of sounds from the length of their career, from beautiful ambient melodies to abrasive beats. But following them through the years as we’ve done here, we shouldn’ be surprised if we’ve been paying attention. Autechre have always built their latest edifices out of (perhaps repurposed) materials they’ve used before, adding new ingredients as they come to hand.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything new to be found on Quaristice. It’s the atmospheric tracks that offer up the most, like ‘paralel Suns’ with its synthesised electric storm and deep echo-laden chords – although actually it could almost come from a Doctor Who score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The context’s the thing, as always: an Autechre album is a cohesive unit, even if the glue that holds it together is harder to identify here, among the comparatively short tracks on offer, than it was with Untilted‘s multifaceted odysseys.
So the EP7-era chaos of the aptly-named ‘Steels’ flows out of ‘paralel Suns’ via the booming kick drums and digital detritus that make up its beat, and the low-end reverb continues through the mid-tempo acid of ‘Tankakern’, while ‘rale’ begins with the reverb tail from this sub-bass, only to drop its own thumping down-tempo beat moments later. There’s really a bit of everything on offer here, which has the disadvantage that there are probably bits you won’t like, but let the album take you where it wants to go, and before you know it the tuneless synth line has given way to something that could be an acoustic guitar. Certainly you can’t complain at the destination: ‘chenc9’ is the last track with beats, initially abrasive, giving way to a familiarly recessed melodic fragment and then to the last two ambient pieces. That the beat-less compositions are the heart of this album is indubitable, and one can only wonder where they’ll go next.