IDM / Warp / April 26, 2018 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
At almost 30 years of existence, Autechre remains one of the key acts in contemporary electronic music. Having put out an impressive and consistent body of work since the early 90s (studio albums, EPs, remixes, singles, collaborations), the music of the duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth is a rare example of an aesthetic project that still keeps evolving in terms of sheer formal complexity. In that regard, it stands in stark contrast with contemporary culture in general – which for the most part has gone in the opposite direction since they first appeared. Yet Autechre’s music still keeps complexifying in ways that make most forms of contemporary electronic music sound disappointingly flat in comparison. Hence, while they have their cultural roots in the so-called ‘intelligent’ strand of 90s dance music – that is, in electronic music for home listening – they have since long transcended that label through their textural and (in particular) rhythmic complexity.
I usually divide Autechre’s career into what I think are three relatively distinct phases: the early phase of ‘classic’ (and more rhythmically straightforward) IDM (Incunabula to Chiastic Slide), the middle-phase turn towards deepened abstraction and rhythmic complexity (LP5 to Oversteps), and the current phase of experiments with track and album duration (Exai to NTS Sessions 1-4). Crucial to the latter has been the decline of the CD as the main format for releasing music, which has prompted the duo to put out increasingly lengthy releases sometimes in digital-only format (e.g. 2016’s elseq and the almost 9,5 hours long AE Live from 2015). While this obviously comes with a risk for the by now common phenomenon of cultural (and cognitive) oversaturation, I do not think this is the case here – as the option of going fully digital really has allowed Booth’s and Brown’s releases to evolve even further now that they have to be less concerned with cramming their music onto an 80-minute long CD. Both elseq and 2008’s Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae (their third digital-only release, which is far better than the actual album it is attached to) are testaments of that.
NTS Sessions 1-4 follows the same path. First broadcast weekly over the course of a month at the British radio station NTS Radio, NTS Sessions 1-4 was released on digital format immediately after the end of the final broadcast – with physical releases arriving a few months later. It follows a similar structure as its predecessor elseq in that it works best if approached as one massive release, rather than as four individual albums. And like on elseq, there is a mixture of ambient and rhythmical tracks ranging from just a few to over twenty minutes (culminating in the one-hour long ambient track ‘all end’). However, herein I think lies the weakness of Autechre’s more recent releases, in that their experiments with ambient tracks are far less interesting to me than the tracks where rhythms are dominating (which indeed is the reason for why I think that the largely ambient Oversteps from 2010 is the duo’s by far weakest record). For as I hinted at earlier, what I think first and foremost makes their music so unique is their rhythmic complexity – which means that when this is removed, their signature disorienting sound – that not just operates between, but more importantly also transcends, the conventions of both dance music and sound art – kind of loses its formal edge. In that regard, NTS Sessions 1-4 is a somewhat uneven experience – with a number of astonishing tracks, but also with several (from an Autechre perspective) quite average ones.
It is consequently the predominantly rhythmical tracks such as ‘north spiral’ and ‘gonk steady one’ (Session 1), ‘elyc9 7hres’ and ‘gonk tuf hi’ (Session 2), and ‘tt1pd’ and ‘glos ceramic’ (Session 3) that are among my favourites (Session 4, in contrast, consists exclusively of ambient tracks). As usual, this is where the duo truly shines in creating rhythms that really do not sound like anything else – and which also serve as a reminder as to why they prefer to play their live sets in near or complete darkness, in order to maximise the cognitively disorienting impact of their remarkable rhythmical constructions by removing visual reference points. Unfortunately, the gaps between tracks such as these are a bit too frequent – which slightly lowers the overall impression. But even so, NTS Sessions 1-4 is at the end of the day still another quite extraordinary sonic beast signed Booth and Brown; and even though longer does not automatically mean better (indeed, some tracks could arguably have been cut here), the sense that the move beyond previous temporal restrictions has augmented Autechre’s sound even further is nevertheless still persisting. Indeed, listening to Autechre’s music, I get that rare feeling of ‘future shock’ that was crucial to the best forms of electronic music during the post-war decades. Perhaps crucial to this future is a reconsideration of the concept of ‘intelligence’ as such – beyond its limited application rooted in the 90s’ idea of electronic music for listening to at home. Could this not be the key to Autechre’s transcendence beyond classic IDM: the redefinition of its ‘intelligent’ component beyond the paltry confines of home listening, towards a nascent computational intelligence already at work in various domains of contemporary (digital) culture?