By Troy Cameron
Autechre is an electronic duo from Rochdale, England, with one of the most diverse discographies of any recent artist. Informally meeting and beginning to make music in 1987, the group’s first formal release under the Autechre name came in ’93—the aptly titled Incunabula on Warp Records. Funnily enough, albeit the artist’s use of digital gibberish as titles for albums and songs, incunabulum is an archaic term for early books and literature, generally published before 1501. The album became a success on the UK indie charts. The group continued to diversify their sound, with the follow-up release of Amber in ’94, leaning into more ambient soundscapes and relaxing environments.
Since then, the group has continued to surprise and divide audiences with a massive range of releases. Their earlier releases after Amber saw a break away from traditional techno roots toward more experimental sounds and drum patterns, such as on Tri-Repitae and Chiastic Slide. LP5, as stated by the group, “bridges the gap between the people who liked our old stuff, and propelled people into our new stuff”. Here, Autechre took a more extreme turn into experimental territory. Later releases such as Draft 7.30, Untilted and Confield see much more mathematical and percussion-reliant efforts. These were immediately followed by Quaristice, an album that is much looser in terms of rhythm and tonality. On this record Autechre regained some of the ambient sounds from Amber, and it’s generally considered as one of their more difficult releases.
Currently, Autechre’s main output has been lengthier releases focusing on dense, changing soundscapes, more esoteric and darker-sounding than ever before. This is particularly evident through their two-hour NTS Radio sessions, all four of which are being released as an eight- hour box set composed of a myriad of sonic imagery and boundary-pushing electronic music.
The live set was conducted in absolute darkness. Only the exit lights left the room in a state of bare luminescence. I was familiar with Autechre’s reputation of playing in total darkness and prior to the event I had often connected it to a sort of subversion, a total contrast to the intricate light shows conducted at general electronic music festivals and shows. Another thing I had heard of prior was that they played at incredible volumes, something I thought I was completely attuned to. I had been to a drone performance in 2016, volumes reaching 120db, much akin to Sunn O))) and the like, so I believed that this would be similar, however less extreme.
Two things became immediately apparent during the set.
Firstly, the darkness was much less of a gimmick than I had thought. There was never a point in the show where there was a multitude of things happening sonically, and by thrusting the audience into darkness the band allowed for a full focus to be given to the sound. It served a functional purpose, for one sense to be removed in order to enhance another. It was extremely effective, I would argue that I noticed more in the sound with a total lack of vision. Closing your eyes could provide a similar effect but during the set but it was better to gaze into the dark. I gained a much deeper appreciation of Autechre’s work at the volume at which they performed, I was able to hear even more of what they were doing sonically, every last small element of the soundscape they introduced, building a sonic picture on their black canvas. unlike the unrelenting force of sound I had experienced in earlier experimental concerts, the duo had a delicate sense of dynamic control.
Volumes were never excessively loud when they didn’t need to be and when they were it was effective, jolting, jarring, fitting, most of all. It is a truly skillful art as if they had not the control they did, the concert could have easily been tediously loud or quiet, however, they kept it to a near perfect medium. Autechre’s live performance reminds me of near-virtuosic classical performance. The masterful control of sound pieces, samples, spacing, timing and mistiming, and dynamic most importantly, is not unlike the orchestration of Wagner or Strauss.
What truly impressed me was how effectively they took control of what could have been a harsh and chaotic soundscape and turned it into something beautiful. In a more literal sense, the synth work utilised onstage made me recall the work of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, once again, chaotic and dissonant in nature but curtailed so finely that the work becomes something manageable and appreciable. It seems that there are many artists currently who lack this ability, claiming that the freedom of their work allows for freedom of expression. In some cases, this proves true, but in others, it highlights why Autechre’s masterful control of their work is so important and was so amazing to behold live and onstage.
This is easily one of the most entertaining and enjoyable live performances I have seen and it will be something I remember long into the future. If they return, be sure to catch them live, and in the meantime, enjoy their consistently forward-thinking work with the lights on and the volume up, and have a great time exploring the labyrinth of sound that is Autechre.
Listen to their Helsinki live set here