This month’s installment of Reverse Polarity takes a look at true electronic music pioneers – the British duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, otherwise known as Autechre. Unlike fellow electronic music inductees Venetian Snares, there is nothing particularly harsh in Autechre’s sound on Confield (or anywhere else, for that matter). Instead, the extremity here is all about abstraction, about odd-angled wrongness, and about the subversion of long-held expectations and assumptions about rhythm and melody in Western music, even in late 20th century electronic music.
As far as its relationship to more MetalReview-friendly climes, I’m recommending Confield for anyone out there who, like me, has a wicked soft spot for deranged industrial metal, from DHG to Aborym, Axis of Perdition to Iperyt, Red Harvest to Blacklodge and beyond. Still, as much as I love that kind of nastiness, the purpose of this edition of RP is to suggest that these two hip-hop and software-obsessed Britons succeed consistently at what all these legions of evil-minded noisemongers have never quite managed: namely, producing a totally alien world of sound. Because, as brilliant as 666 International, Sick Transit Gloria Mundi, and all the rest are, they still present a fundamentally recognizable metallic foundation with all manner of harsh-fucked noise and dystopian leering grafted on the top. This isn’t to say that these acts haven’t integrated the industrial with the metal, but rather that the apocalypse they envision seems altogether too predictable.
The appealing thing about the diseased noise and harsh mechanical clattering that’s littered across the best moments of the black/industrial canon is imagining a world in which the machines have taken over. Flesh melts while titanium gleams. Flowers wither, angles proliferate, ghosts in the machine and “Sarah Connor?” and all that shit. That’s the intention, and that’s the aesthetic, and it has certainly produced a number of stone-cold classics. Still, there’s always a little nagging part of me that knows that if a style of music really wants to provide the soundtrack to the human world dissolved by the unfeeling calculations of machines having experienced their own Cartesian revelation, it ain’t going to be some twelve-bar blues with a guy banging on an anvil over the top of it.
It’s a lot like Star Trek, really. See, as much as I love the eye-bleeding hell out of my Star Trek past, present, and (probably) future, the level of Earth-centrism on display is undeniable. And I’m not even just referring to the staggeringly unlikely number of alien species encountered by and within the good ol’ United Federation of Planets who just happen to be basically human with slightly queer ears, noses, and/or foreheads.
Time and again, the intrepid explorers of Star Trek encounter alien cultures that have the same organizational structure, the same generic code of values, and so forth, with minor cosmetic alterations or one giant incongruous ethical difference. I am, of course, mostly just being a dick about a frequently low-budget, high-camp pop culture phenomenon, but seriously, what do you suppose the actual chances are that if we ever get our shit together enough to launch some major space yachts out there into that damned Final Frontier, nine out of ten new lifeforms encountered will be bipedal, carbon-based douchebags with the same general military-scientific hierarchical structure as us?
Anyway, all of this is really just a bullshit way of saying: Autechre is the real new noise. Sounds happen in Autechre’s world, but by the time Confield shambled into view in 2001, these ear-twisting bits and bytes behaved according to an almost entirely alien physics, or at least a completely non-Euclidean geometry. Confield is one of the most abstract of Autechre’s long-players, and thus often derided as “academic” or “obtuse” or “no fun” by the same kind of nightclub-horny glowstick-gobblers that will be the very first to find their internal organs transformed from organic matter to pure binary when the computers take over.
What’s so alluring about Confield is that for as out-there as it gets, there’s almost always a kernel of familiarity that lingers, just enough to make you think, “Oh, I feel like I can understand the beat that’s happening here but oh wait now my blood has turned to mercury and all my furniture looks like sprawling metropolises constructed wholly of RAM sticks.” “Eidetic Casein” is basically a skewed trip-hop song, and “Parhelic Triangle” almost sounds like a slow jam, but I guarantee you’d face some tough questions about the uncomfortable sex positions you try to pull if you use this as the soundtrack for your next round of Interpersonal Tenderness.
Album opener “VI Scose Poise” demonstrates exactly how forward-thinking the computer aliens from future space that have taken control over the flesh-bags Booth and Brown can be, even compared to their most revered colleagues and contemporaries. The song pulls a somewhat similar track to Aphex Twin’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” but where the midsection of that Aphex tune toys with the sound of an actual bouncing sphere, Autechre’s sparse, ghostly oscillations sound like a dozen tiny ball bearings ricocheting off a trampoline made of paper-thin nylon.
Aphex Twin, “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”:
Autechre, “VI Scose Poise”:
“Sim Gishel,” meanwhile, sounds like a simple thump-beat radio signal that’s being used to carry a focused transmission which condenses the accumulated knowledge of far-distant cosmic civilizations. Still, if it’s extremity you seek, then “Bine” certainly unleashes the skittering random beats and washes of noise more aggressively than the rest of the album. (Note: when I say “random,” it’s no mere hyperbole – Booth and Brown developed random beat-making software and deployed it frequently around this part of their career.)
Album closer “Lentic Catachresis” begins calmly enough, with some spare vamping behind beats that keep skipping from tempo to tempo. The midsection devolves into a total random beat squelchfest before those synth tones slowly creep back in maybe two minutes from the end. Do not try to dance; do not try to comprehend. Bend your synapses to the insensible rhythm.
Autechre, “Lentic Catachresis”:
The point is this: until all the Einsatyricon Neuburzums of the world produce a completely new musical form (no matter how successful their many syntheses have thus been, and how much filthy fealty I swear to their ongoing exploits), and until Star Trek: Geriatric in the Gamma Quadrant shows me a consistent string of episodes in which instead of a bunch of different-shades-of-militaristic-vanilla cultures battling out the Cold War again and again, the crew encounters a lifeform with which it cannot learn to communicate, and which is so busy being completely other that its thought patterns of pure mathematics transform Geordi and Data’s adopted love-children into an abacus, a calculator, and an atom-smasher, well, until that vaunted and always already nevergoingtohappen time, Autechre is the sound of collapsing new buildings in a galaxy where gravity behaves like the weather report.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: Have you seen The Greatest Music Video Ever Made? Well, it’s for an Autechre song, so watch it and go fuck yourself. The machines are coming, what do I care?
Autechre, “Gantz Graf” (from the Gantz Graf EP):