In the run up to the May Bank Holiday of 1992, Avon and Somerset police set out to put a halt to the Avon Free Festival, an outdoor gathering running annually since the 1970s that drew travellers, new agers and crusties from across the United Kingdom. Attempts at crowd dispersal succeeded only into funnelling thousands into the neighbouring county of Worcestershire, where on Castlemorton Common, an estimated 25,000 crusties and weekend ravers met for an outdoor party that would last one week. At that point, it was the largest event the UK's burgeoning free party movement had ever seen.
The tabloids were scandalised; the police, unable to break up a gathering of that size, were humiliated. At the close, several members of the anarcho-hippy rave crew Spiral Tribe were arrested and had their vehicles and sound system impounded. Questions about UK rave culture were raised in Parliament. Legislation was on the way. 20 years ago this year, John Major's Conservative Government introduced the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994, a sweeping bill that included within its many clauses a direct attack on the free party movement. Section 63 is to the outdoor rave what Form 696 is to the licenced grime event, giving police the powers to remove "a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons… at which amplified music is played".
As if preempting the possibility of some smart-arse lawyer pulling out, say, a 12" of Xenophobia's nutty E-anthem 'Rush In The House' with a "And do you really think this qualifies as 'music', m'lud?", Section 63 included a helpful sub-clause clarifying just how broad the state's definition of music in this case was: "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats." The wording no doubt felt watertight to whichever dreary apparatchik had been called upon to draft it, but Rob Brown and Sean Booth – two b-boys from Rochdale who met through Manchester's graffiti community some years earlier, and now produced music as Autechre – looked at Section 63 and saw a loophole to tug at.
In September 1994, Autechre released a new EP, Anti, on Warp. Consisting of three tracks recorded at the same sessions as the duo's forthcoming long-player Amber, its turquoise sleeve was sealed with a black sticker that bore the following message: "Warning. Lost and Djarum contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advice DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment."
The music of Warp Records has seldom felt explicitly political, but Anti felt like satire of the best stripe: both angry, and smart. By breaking the seal, the sticker warned, "you accept full responsibility for any consequential action resulting from this product's use". Brown and Booth were serious, too. All proceeds from the record were to be donated to the political pressure group Liberty, and the communiqué ended with a final statement: "Autechre is politically non-aligned. This is about personal freedom."
Autechre were not the only UK group to come out with an artistic response to the Criminal Justice Act. The Prodigy's 'Their Law' and 'Repetitive Beats' by Retribution, a dance supergroup featuring members of Fun-Da-Mental and System 7, were both directly or indirectly inspired by the Bill. But it's hard to think of any precedent for a track like 'Flutter': a musicological protest song, undermining repressive legislation not through punk posturing, but studio subversion. As a tune, meanwhile, it bangs. Translucent melodies hover, aurora borealis-like above a tumult of slappy snares and dotty kicks that convulse in ever-more complex sequences.
Reputedly built from a string of 65 distinct drum patterns linked together, the ingenious thing about 'Flutter' is that it sounds repetitive: it moves fluidly, nimbly, never tips into abstraction or misses a beat. Meticulously constructed, it delivers its political statement like a coup de grace. 'Lost' and 'Djarum', meanwhile, explore bordering territory: the former a melancholy piece haunted by wisps of vocal and dappled synth; the latter contrasting the grating with the pretty as if in anticipation of the style Aphex Twin would explore next year with 'I Care Because You Do'.
Brown and Booth had made their Warp Records debut two years earlier with a pair of tracks on the label's pioneering Artificial Intelligence compilation (which also included Alex Paterson, Speedy J, and Richard D James under his Dice Man pseudonym). Artificial Intelligence, which its sleeve image of a virtual reality avatar with spliff in hand, vegging out to his Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk vinyl, appeared rather urbane and civilised next to the dreadlocked heathens of the free party scene, and the artists within would become pretty much a who's who of what would for better or worse become bracketed – in the US, at least – under the unlikable term of Intelligent Dance Music. A selection of Q&A's printed on Artificial Intelligence's inner sleeve finds Autechre citing Edgar Froese and Chris Franke of kosmische Krautrock pioneers Tangerine Dream amongst their recent influences, and you can certainly hear that on their two contributions, 'Crystel and 'The Egg': tuff electro rhythms linked to crystalline, beautiful synthesiser melodies.
Trying to identify a clear trajectory to Autechre's career is probably a fool's errand, but looking over their discography, the Anti EP feels like a turning point; a sort of hinge linking the ambient house of their early work to the arid, alien computer music that would follow. Indeed, how you play Flutter feels crucial. On the CD version, we hear it at a speed equivalent to the vinyl spun at 45rpm. But on a note on the vinyl sleeve, Autechre suggest that it can be played either at 45 or the slower 33 1/3rpm. Pitched at 33 1/3 it's a pretty thing, in line with the dreamy drifts of Amber. At 45, it moves at a relatively spry 140bpm – surely by no coincidence, the pace of much early breakbeat rave, before the harder-faster lure of 'arkdore pushed the tempo higher – and pointing towards future Autechre: the dark, skittering abstractions and gnomic melodies that run through LP5 and EP7.
Castlemorton might have sounded the death knell for the free party scene, but by 1994, like much of Warp's roster, Autechre were on a rather different path. In the years following Anti, they tunnelled into their music to make something timeless and undateable, inspired by malfunctioning hardware, generative software, the radical geometries of architect Santiago Calatrava and the game theory of mathematician John Horton Conway. Shows were played in pitch darkness, to eliminate the details of their surroundings and focus attention on the music, and complexity became a sort of guiding principle, culminating in imposing – fair-weather fans might say impenetrable – releases like 2001's Confield and 2002's Gantz Graf.
Even as Autechre have moved further out, though, they've retained an emotional resonance, a heart inside the glitch. "Quite often when people discuss emotions in music they only think of happy or sad as being emotions," Sean wrote on the electronica forum We Are The Music Makers last year, "when in my opinion emotions are a lot more than that". To this end, we can see the word scrambles of Autechre's album and track titles – 'Inhake2', 'Piobmx19', 'Cap.IV' – as a means of freeing themselves from the dead weight of language, a platform from which to imagine new feelings, unnatural energies, impossible structures.
Anti stands out in the Warp Records catalogue because of its politics. Warp's benighted position in the 1990s, assisted by their sharp branding and the cerebral leanings of its artists, often served to make the label appear an outpost: hermetically sealed from the broader dance scene at large. Politics, by and large, was not their thing. So there is something perversely satisfying about the Warp purist's favourite group, a duo whose music has so often resembled short-circuiting androids, making a stand for civil liberties.
All the same, though, even shorn of its political statement, Anti would stand out. In the morphing rhythms of 'Flutter', we can hear Booth and Brown happening on something that feels close to Autechre's essence: the sound of a group pledging never to repeat themselves.
Warp Records turns 25 this year, and they're hosting some amazing parties to celebrate.
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