Friday, February 26, 2010

Thoughts while listening to Autechre

My first rave was Cybertrek 2, the Melbourne Uni Student Union party in 1997. It was a 200 metre walk from my tiny room at Trinity College, but the two worlds seemed much further apart. Only three of around 280 Trinity students made it to Cybertrek: me, a first year in blue Dangerfield cords and a friend’s Mr Happy t-shirt; Cornelia, a stylish older girl who introduced me to Daft Punk; and Caleb, an eccentric Nietzchean with flaming red sideburns and ponytail – and a Friday 13th-style hockey mask to scare the kiddies.

Years later, as a student activist, I looked back on Cybertrek as an actually-existing highpoint of the ‘student control of student affairs’ we politicos trumpeted so loudly. Organised through the Arts and Activities Offices, and featuring many student DJs and artists, the party took over four levels of the student union building. The meeting rooms upstairs were transformed into a fluorescent jungle with the ubiquitous fractals projected onto a big screen; the Grand Buffet dining room became the main floor; the coffee lounge was the drum’n’bass room, and downstairs a mix of markets, art installations and fire-twirling under the stars.

It would be months before my second (and much larger) rave: Halcyon Knights, a New Years Eve 1997/8 Hardware party at the Exhibition Buildings, headlined by Carl Cox, Underworld’s Darren Emerson and Fatboy Slim. Today, when I walk through the Carlton Gardens to work at Trades Hall, I still wonder what bureaucratic loophole allowed 7,000 ravers to take over this World Heritage-listed site of Australia’s first Federal Parliament.

Cigarette buts littered the polished floorboards; a close friend vomited into a wheelie bin in the middle of the dancefloor and then kept partying (now that was an eye-opener); and Will E Tell teased us to distraction with a stop-start dawn set. Only a year previously I had railed against techno as repetitive anti-music for zombies: now, walking out into a beautiful New Year’s Morning, I hailed Carl Cox’s set with the specific praise that I couldn’t distinguish one track from the other!

I was a raver, and my girlfriend soon bought me some fluorescent, glittered bracelets – and a green op shop t-shirt advertising Milgate Primary School’s production of Kids in Space. But away from the party itself, I still found most electronic music almost unlistenable. Where was the subtlety, the variation? (My one dubbed cassette - Return to the Source: Shamanic Trance – was out-and-out goa.)

Thankfully, Melbourne’s street press soon came to rescue. If memory serves, the specific review was of Squarepusher’s Music is Rotted One Note by Anthony Carew in Inpress. In Carew’s typically loquacious style – never using one word when ten might suffice – he painted a picture of Tom Jenkinson’s music as a kind of sonic organism, gestated in the demented mind of this brilliant auteur, birthed live in the studio and then cut up Frankenstein-style on the computer.

I went straight out to Collector’s Corner to buy a copy, and it confused the hell out of me (as anything even vaguely resembling jazz usually does). Undeterred, I returned to pick up the same artist’s Hard Normal Daddy (1997), on which the jungle influences were much more pronounced. It’s a classic Warp Records album, straddling the divide between the dancefloor and the loungeroom. Then, another epiphany: a night with the atmospheric beats of Howie B’s Turn the Dark Off (1997) awoke in me a virtual cinema of the imagination. The next morning, I could almost see the tracks from the night before – the closest I’ve ever come to the experience of synaesthesia.

Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do (1996) was the other album on high rotation at this time, but it was the discovery of fellow Warp artists Autechre that turned me into a full-on electronica geek. On Amber (1994) and Tri Repetae (1996), they created tracks which even today sound like the hopeless mating calls of robot prototypes in a post-apocalyptic world: harsh, wistful, and perfectly self-contained. Or, to attempt a more social and less poetic description, they soundtracked the comedown from industrial life in northern Britain, when abandoned warehouses still echoed with the sounds of the rave the night before.

Autechre inspired a generation of lesser artists, many of whom took the absurdly reductive formula of industrial beat + pretty melody to its predictably uninspired conclusion. Perhaps partly in reaction, Autechre’s music has become more abstract, dense and unapproachable with each release. Their experimentation often seems restless and, when the odd danceable rhythm does rear its head in one of their tracks, it is savagely attacked within moments.

They remain my favourite group, however – especially after seeing them live in 2007 at Belgium’s Dour Festival. Performing in total darkness, Autechre provided an overwhelming aural experience unmatched by any other act I have heard - and these include the Philip Glass Ensemble, Aphex Twin, Christian Fennesz and Sunn O))). Their beats are relentless while hanging right on the edge of danceability; the sounds are endlessly inventive and terrifying; the overall effect of a nightmare you never want to end.

I think the key to my enjoyment of Autechre’s set was the context. I had heard them play live once before, at four in the afternoon in a lecture theatre in Valencia. It was a bizarre experience. At Dour they were right in the middle of the rave, sandwiched between Luke Vibert and Venetian Snares, with Otto von Schirach to close. It was a hot, sweaty, smelly tent – and every single person was there to get loose and hear the weirdest shit possible. In which endeavour, needless to say, they were richly rewarded.

Perhaps it is too much to ask one artist (or group) to embody fully both the physical and the cerebral aspects rave, but for some reason I have long held this to be electronic music’s holy grail. At Dour, Autechre came as close as I can imagine to fulfilling this dream.

These ramblings have come to me while listening to Autechre’s new album Oversteps for the first time (on repeat!). It is their most easily enjoyable album since EP7 (1999), sparser and more ambient but still far from minimal. The music evokes in me a nostalgia for the enthusiasms of my late teenage years, when a world of unimagined subcultures opened up to me; it also affirms my love of electronic music, and of rave as the parent culture which spawned such a highly specialised, intricate offspring.

And of Autechre, naturally.


My old friend and musical fellow-traveller, Chris Haan, is currently surviving his first London winter – a particularly horrendous one by all accounts. But in April Autechre will play a warehouse party and he will be there. Chin up, Christoff, there’s a few of us back here who are more than a little jealous!


Anonymous said...

Great post Seb. You forgot the Steve Reich remixes cd ;)

Seb said...

Of course! And who is the mysterious coishii...?

Unknown said...

your writing is fab seb. i came here to read your recent gig review and have been enjoying everything else.

commenting on this ancient post to say: i was at that cybertrek party too! and strangely, i can also still recall what i wore.

peas, cara