How Autechre Got Their Groove Back

Do Autechre still matter in 2008? Sean Booth and Rob Brown have spent almost two decades exploring the outer limits of electronic music. But as with their Warp Records label mate Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), it seems that the rest of the world has finally caught up to their tech-savvy, twisted tunes. The duo’s newest album, Quaristice, is their ninth, and it acts more like a recapitulation of beats-already-smashed than the forward-thinking kaleidoscope of psychedelic dance music that fans have come to expect.

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Rob Brown (left) and Sean Booth: Now trading in digestible nuggets rather than long workouts

Blame technology. When the group’s masterful Chiastic Slide hit the shelves in 1997 and ushered in their beloved era of malformed beats welded to plaintive melodies, Radiohead were playing with the idea of paranoid androids but couldn’t come close to making them sing. Fast-forward just three years and a Kid A later though, and even an idioteque could crack the code of Autechre’s machines and make it into pop music.

Unsurprisingly, Autechre had already moved on. Around the turn of the century, the group seemed to come to the conclusion that melodies composed on synthesizers have a strange way of invariably dating themselves to a certain time period. (Just take a listen to Autechre’s 1994 ambient techno outing Amber; it isn’t just the beats that give it away.) As a result, 2001’s Confield assiduously ignored conventional songwriting. The riffs that you could once play on a piano were now replaced by tangled Möbius-strip themes that seemed to have no beginning or end — as though architect Félix Candela’s curved concrete structures had been turned into music. When a clear melody was absent altogether, it would instead be subtly implied within the edges of brittle and distorted rhythms.

There’s a common joke among Autechre fans that goes like this: Most listeners only grow to love the duo’s last album right around the time that they are ready to release their next one. The implication, of course, is that it takes listeners an enormous amount of work to fully understand and embrace the terrain that Autechre have mapped out. That joke didn’t make much sense after Confield, though. Comprehending 2003’s Draft 7.30 and 2005’s Untilted was easy in the wake of the 2001 album that erased the hard-beat/soft-melody duality of the group’s previous output and traded it for something far more emotionally ambiguous. Problem is, their music also became a whole lot harder to love.

Quaristice helps listeners along by dint of the fact that its contents come in digestible nuggets of three- and four-minute blasts instead of the usual seven- or eight-minute workouts. Given the chance to showcase the full breadth of their interests, Autechre came up with an album that runs the gamut from digital musique concrète (“Fol3”) to orchestral booty bass (“The Plc”) and distorted electro (“90101-5l-l”) to out-and-out ambiance (“Altibzz”). They aren’t doing much that sounds new or innovative, but this time it actually sounds like a whole hell of a lot of fun. In many ways, Quaristice recalls Aphex Twin’s 2001 double album, Drukqs. There, James couldn’t decide what kind of record he wanted to put out, so he spread four distinct types of songs among its two discs. Unable to shock with a genre reinvention or even much of a tweak, the album saw James pounding out tiny miniatures on a prepared piano and revisiting his teenage love, acid techno.

But while James was busy hitting his head against the wall of established genres, Booth and Brown are still fascinated by the one that they unwittingly created themselves in the early ’00s — and by how they can map it onto other forms. “IO,” for instance, is one of the rare moments when Autechre have let words into their alien world, and you can hear the joy they take in mangling them beyond recognition. Or in “Perlence,” when they unleash a break beat worthy of their early electro and mid-’80s hip-hop heroes. (There’s actually little difference between this and much of what MF Doom has been rapping over for the past five years.)

Even so, the duo have lost little of the complexity that made them famous. As Booth once put it in an interview with The Wire’s David Stubbs, Autechre’s goal is to create music so that you can “listen to something months later and have forgotten things.” That doesn’t change on Quaristice. This time it just feels loose and playful instead of deadly serious. Maybe it’s because Autechre have lightened up; more likely, it’s because we no longer ask them to surprise us. Do Autechre still matter in 2008? Sure, but not in the same way that they once did. For both parties involved, that’s a good thing.

AUTECHRE | Quaristice | Warp Records

Autechre perform at the Echoplex on Fri., April 4.

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