Switched On: Autechre with Actress + E. Fishpool: City Recital Hall Sydney – 27th of August 2023


It was the mixed bag you’d expect in attendance at Sunday’s Autechre show in Sydney, hard to say if anyone spanned the Venn diagram of the regal venue’s standard patrons though.

The Angel Place Recital Hall usually hosts matinees for card-carrying Australian Chamber Orchestra members, but tonight it was Autechre, Actress, and E Fishpool gracing the esteemed setting.

First up was E. Fishpool. I brought deep shame to myself by only catching the final three minutes of the local’s set. It was a great three minutes though! Apologies E Fishpool, your Bandcamp sounds great.

I love Actress, the genre-pushing project of UK artist Darren Cunningham. I especially love Ghettoville, Actress’ 2014 opus: a near-perfect mix of hazy house, minimal ambience, and crushing tonal experiments which at once manages to be uncompromising, welcoming, and full of intrigue; the pieces fit together.

Live, Cunningham never really got going though. As a single white light on a stand streamed over him from behind, he idly fiddled with his setup. Chimes clanged over each other, awkward bass notes pulsed in and out, the majority of it felt like an extended improvised intro.

For a brief moment he almost had a genuine 4/4 going, at which point they turned the single white light behind him orange and flicked it on and off a few times. Loved that part, a real highlight.

The whole thing was woozy, moody, atmospheric… BYO descriptor. It had character but Cunningham seemed totally uninterested in outputting anything that remotely resembled a tune, let alone a coherent structure.

Ultimately underwhelming but the man does what he wants, so who can begrudge that.

Immediately afterwards, we were told that Autechre (pronounced to me in three different ways over the course of the evening) would be up next, that they would be playing in complete darkness, and—in an attempt to preserve the sensory experience for others—if we were to leave, we’d not be allowed back in. Cool.

Autechre have been doing their thing for over 30 years. An English experimental electronic duo who found their groove early and have been consistently racing up and down the edges of it since.

I saw them about 10 years ago at a much less interesting venue (Max Watts I think it was called at the time?) and they did the whole darkness bit then too. From what I recall the vibe during the set was largely mediocre as they couldn’t actually get the venue that dark, and the fact that it was a standing crowd made the whole thing a bit awkward.

Still, I was keen to see them again in an environment that seemed a bit more appropriate for it. We took our seats, the doors were shut, aisle lights were switched off, and—fair play to the Recital Hall—the joint actually got pretty dark.

Then the duo started (at least I assume they did, couldn’t catch sight of them) and did not stop until the end.

To describe it in a word: pummelling. In more words: pummelling with nice little bits happening too.

I’m a big combat sports fan. I watch a lot of MMA, I practice BJJ, I keep up with whatever martial arts I can. MMA is the most dynamic of the lot. The best MMA matches have nonstop action, and anyone can get a thrill without knowing about the nuanced movement and technique happening. As it now gets more popular, the sport is starting to become a lot more homogenised and it’s all beginning to look a bit the same.

Boxing, however, is in the middle of one of its biggest years in a decade. Big time fights are being made, and they’re delivering on the night. MMA will always be my favourite of the sports to watch, but the thing about a truly great boxing match, a 12 round championship fight between two competitors, is that it cannot be rivalled.

The drama, the micro-narratives through the rounds, the highs and lows; nothing anywhere in sports is as good as the best championship boxing matches.

They’re nuanced, technical, brutal affairs that aren’t for everyone, but if you get it, it’s unparalleled.

The realisation I had mid set it that MMA is modern electronica. Autechre is high-level boxing.

They start off slow, there’s feeling out periods, awkward exchanges before things really get going. But when you’re deep in the 8th round and you realise you’ve been swept up in relentless polyrhythms mixed with delicate subtleties throughout, there’s nothing quite like it.

Amidst the maelstrom, the duo unearth some now ancient audio relics on stage in search of their “future sound”. Turntablism, boom-bap, and big beat sensibilities permeate the set, while the foundation of skittering rhythms and mind-melting Max/MSP routines set up shop and refuse to budge.

Aside from stretched metaphors about boxing, to me there’s one thing Autechre are strangely not: timeless.

This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but seeing them live after all these years really accentuated how deeply rooted they are in the IDM heights of the 90s.

They’ve of course progressed since then, but their sound—boundary-pushing as it is—hasn’t evolved so far from where they started, which in the end elicits a certain cosiness and comfort; a wonderful juxtapose to be feeling during the austerity of an Autechre set.

Part of me hates the pretence of it all. The darkness, the impenetrability of the facade, the forced meditative experience. But, like a 12 round fiasco in the ring, there’s something completely undeniable about an Autechre performance: it can be a spiritual experience if you simply submit to the unyielding frenzy.

Could’ve done with a strobe here or there though, just for kicks.


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