Autechre have never really tried to meet you where you’re at. The Manchester-born duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth announced last week that in a couple months time, you’ll be able to hold in your hands their latest musical product NTS Sessions 1-4, a 12-LP (or 5-CD set) of eight hours of new music, originally broadcast on the London-based internet radio station from which it takes its name. It’s an unwieldy quantity of art, something virtually impossible to consume in one sitting, but that’s kinda how they’ve decided to do things in the last decade of their operations. Their last album elseq 1—5, a brittle and bruised collection of shattered electronic engineering released in 2016, ran for just about four hours. The one preceding that, 2013’s Exai, sprinted through otherworldly glitches for upwards of two hours. This clearly isn’t meant to be easy.
But then, it never really was, even back in their earliest days when they were shoving their ideas into the more manageable packages of two sides of 12” vinyl. Autechre have always operated more like Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, stuffing voluminous, maleficent, and yes, occasionally incredibly beautiful, music into glassine containers that can barely hold them—the excess spilling over the sides only to be scooped up, repurposed and issued into the world in their own right. If it sounds grotesque, well yeah, the upsetting excess of it has become part of the point.
Drawing on their love for rap, electro, and the more mechanically limbed strains of techno, Booth and Brown began issuing records together in 1991, twisting the grammars of those styles into machine languages all their own. Their early works tended more toward the regular rhythms, straightforward melodies, and clubby proclivities of their influences—they’ve since referred to that stuff as “cheesy”—but even their earliest full-lengths, Incunabula and Amber had their moments of pure alien surrealism.
Since then, they’ve headed fully for the outer realms of experimental electronic music, largely trading in their analog gear for the cold efficiency of the music program MaxMSP, which allows them to build their own digital instruments and produce music in the impossible improvisatory quantities they’ve since adopted. But don’t take those vast torrents of music as the lack of an editing impulse, they’ve adopted a strategy, especially on the first of these NTS Sessions, that seems to exist outside the pop understanding of songs as linear things. Instead, they work spatially. These are dense, dark forests of fractured beats that crack and thump like downed tree branches, and reedy electronics that twist around them in roiling serpentine shapes.
Anyway, if that sounds too intimidating a place to start, there’s plenty of other entry points. The common wisdom says to start at the beginning and work chronologically. And though moving from clubby comforts to upsetting noise is a smart journey, it’s a bit impractical now that they’re releasing their 13th proper album, which, it bears mentioning again, is eight hours long. So, for the travelers unfamiliar with the strange worlds of Autechre, here’s a few paths on which to orient your journeys.
When Booth and Brown were young, the pair immersed themselves in the hip-hop and electro scenes that stormed their hometown in the 80s. Electro, Booth said in a 2010 interview with the Quietus, was a big enough phenomenon that even adolescents were trading tapes that came in to Manchester’s Spin Inn record shop. “You know a scene is popular when 11 year olds are getting into it,” he said. “I can't state enough, really, that the fact that Manchester buzzed so much off American tunes is the reason why we exist.”
Though the fractalized electronics of current day Autechre bear little surface resemblance to the aqueous jams that were once making their way into their teenaged fingers, the dancefloor has nevertheless always been in the duo’s DNA. Early EPs and their first record Incunabula channel dance music’s shimmering energy, evoking the jittery bliss of acid house, peak hours techno, and sleepwalking electro on songs like “Bike” and “Doctrine,” while twisting it into more uncomfortable shapes. They’ve never exactly made floor-fillers—their impulses toward off-kilter rhythms is a bit too strong—but they’re tracks you could more or less get away with on the right system. It’s something they’ve held onto throughout their career, even as they’ve moved onto dizzy, overwhelming ambience, their affinity for beats gives some of their tunes a little bit of structure, something to hold onto amidst the chaos.
Playlist: “Doctrine” / “Quarter / “Rpeg” / “Basscadet (Bcdtmx)” / “jatevee C” / “T ess xi” / “Clipper” / “Bike” / “M62” / “Second Scepe”
While electronic live acts most often amp up the performative aspect of their endeavors, showily twisting filter pots and hitting drum pads, Autechre has often chosen an alternate tact, performing in total darkness. Their approach wasn’t to connect with the audience, to draw lines between their own humanity and the static coming out of the speakers. The effect instead was to remove themselves from the equation and present it as pure sound, which is fitting given the vast empty landscapes often recalled by their best work.
It’s a strand of their work that was present from pretty much their earliest days—or at least since their second album Amber used a photograph of these Turkish hills that look like they could just as easily be from some uninhabited land mass from another galaxy. The cover looks empty, which is the feeling that a lot of the music on that record conveys, that it was a zone without people. Throughout their career, they’ve often returned to that well, crafting synthetic sounds that don’t feel born from human hands, even though they clearly put a lot of care into the detailing. It’s kinda like watching an extremely efficient AI assembly line, sorta creepy, sorta unsettling—but you know a person had to put it there to begin with. A lot of this stuff is incredibly bleak, a perfect soundtrack for trying to be a person in the internet age, when most of your communication is mediated through technology that’s hurtling toward obsolescence. Someday you will be gone too, it’s ok to be sad about it.
Playlist: “Bine” / “Uviol” / “krYlon” / “IV VV IV VV VIII” / “Nth Dafuseder.b” / “Pro Radii” / “Osla for n” / “Dropp” / “Calbruc” / “Foil”/ “Teartear”
Strangely Beautiful Autechre
The flipside of all of this is that when they choose to, Autechre can flip their talents toward surprisingly beautiful ambient tracks too. Often—dating back even to their techno leaning days—they’ll include a track or two on each release that strips away the crushed out drum lines and leaves only the digitalist bliss.
That’s how you end up with slowly swooning synthetics like the watery opener to 2008’s Quaristice “Altibzz” or the vaguely orchestral plinks of Oversteps “Known(1)”—a record that, in general, provided a blueprint Arca’s blissed abstractions half a decade before his debut full-length. Even Amber, which relies mostly on the alien locomotion of its percussion, has moments like “Yulquen,” which uses its brackish synth washes to create an environment as peacefully buoyant as the Dead Sea. Even as their music has moved increasingly toward the digital madness of their MaxMSP experiments, they’ve not abandoned this thread; the first of their NTS Sessions ends with “32a_reflected” a distant drone that ends two hours of nightmarish beats on a comforting note.
Playlist: “Hub” / “Altibzz” / “VI Scose Poise” / “Known(1)” / “See on See” / “Eutow” / “Overand” / “Iris Was a Pupil” / “Slip” / “Yulquen”
Melting Computer Autechre
After the release of elseq 1—5, Booth and Brown said in an interview with Resident Advisor that they’d more or less abandoned the rest of their gear in favor of coding their own instruments in the music software MaxMSP. “When I first started using Max it was a bit intimidating,” Booth said. “You'd get blank canvas syndrome, that moment of ‘what should I do? I could do anything!’”
So, they basically did everything. Over the last few years, crafting sounds that sound like slivered up dial tones, breakbeats transcribed for paper shredders, and harsh noise sent through a laboratory centrifuge. There have been dalliances with organizing those sounds toward meter and rhythm—like on Oversteps or Untilted—but more or less they’ve settled into a sound that’s caustic and claustrophobic. Songs like Untilted’s “Augmatic Disport” have the feeling of illegally downloaded jungle tracks that’s failed to get properly encoded, each seemingly random stutter and plink so gloriously and annoyingly harsh.
The spirit’s been there through all of their work—much of their 2001 record Confield, made before they totally abandoned traditional instrumentation—is born from a similar sort of digitalist fracture. “Cfern” in particular has the feeling of multiple songs, in different keys and rhythms, playing in browser tabs you can’t find—with new ones popping up as you whack-a-mole the exit buttons. Other musicians working intensely with the sound of laptops have strove to find ways to find its humanity and intimacy, but much of Autechre’s work over the years have been content to work in the sounds of disconnection and abjection.
Playlist: “Fleure” / “Cfern” / “Parhelic Triangle” / “Eidetic Casein” / “Redfall” / “Xylin Room” / “V-proc” / “LCC” / “Augmatic Disport” / “Second Bad Vilbel” / “Gantz Graf” / “Jnsn Code GI16”
Endurance Test Autechre
Though Autechre are a duo that deal in minute details, they’ve also never been afraid to stretch their experiments to epic lengths. Most of their releases, even the ones that are ostensibly EPs have tracks that stretch into double digit lengths. Tracks like elseq 1’s 12-minute “pendulu hv moda” are as synthetic and strange as anything else in their catalog, but when you immerse yourself in it for that long, the landscapes start to feel familiar, the blurry structures slowly coming into focus. The pair of tracks they called “Drane” contain some of the most stretched out surreal sounds they’ve conjured throughout their career, but the longer you spend soaking in these moments, the more you start to understand it. It’s a good place to start not because it’s easy, but because it’s how you have to approach Autechre in general, like immersion therapy. Dive in headfirst to their puzzling world, and if you give it enough time, the answers will come.
Playlist: “pendulu hv moda” / “bladelores” / “Further” / “Rsdio” / “Windwind” / “Garbagemx” / “Drane” / “Drane2” / “Nuane”