LISTS A Beginner’s Guide to Autechre By Andy Beta · Photos by BAFIC · October 16, 2020

From their name—the intentional ‘au’ sound with the rest mashed in a jumble on a keyboard—to the music that Sean Booth and Rob Brown create, the music of Autechre can leave you alternately baffled, rebuffed, and astonished. Ever since their inclusion in the genre-defining Artificial Intelligence compilation from 1992, the Manchester duo’s sound remains singular in the canon—not just of cutting-edge electronic music, but in a section of outer space that few other artists ever venture towards, much less wholly inhabit.

Some 30 years on, Autechre remains peerless. Yes, you can pick out thrilling bits of dance music’s heritage in their productions: electro, hip-hop, ambient, drum & bass, video game music, experimental, trip-hop, industrial; but the only true constant is change. Where you enter an Autechre track is never where you exit it. To listen is to wander into a wormhole. Like a dancefloor set atop a mudslide Autechre makes music that feels visceral and cerebral, concussive and ethereal. That dynamic fluidity makes for a catalog that feels deliciously paradoxical: It can feel cryogenic one moment, whimsical the next. Your first few times diving into their music might be frustrating, but then it suddenly opens up, a hermetic world rendered warm and welcoming.

These days, Rob lives in Bristol while Sean remains in Manchester, but their dialogue remains unchanged. These former b-boys may no longer swap cassettes by hand—instead, they send MAX patches from a distance—but that spirit remains intact. At their core, Autechre remains a fascinating lifelong dialogue between two best friends always at play, trying to stump the other, or slyly shift the ground out from under them, their sound veering from algorithm to inscrutable in-joke to proper banger. This guide provides a few highlights, but there’s nothing quite as thrilling and jaw-dropping as a deep exploration of the ever-expanding Autechre universe.


Amber

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If the Autechre discography generally signifies a hostile, inscrutable environment, Amber is a fascinating riposte. The title itself is pronounceable—a recognizable word, no less!—and the music within features sonic elements that the duo would soon excise from their palette completely. There are vocal snippets, orchestral strings, and hummable melodic figures that bring to mind lullabies and new age washes. Set against their rugged drum programming, Amber at times reveals what Autechre might have sounded like in a parallel universe.

Anti

The UK’s ludicrous Criminal Justice And Public Order Act, passed in 1994, was notable for including a bizarre ban on “a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons…at which amplified music is played…sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Not ones to ever turn political, Autechre made their boldest refutation of such nonsense with Anti. Fierce, undeniable, and direct, no need to worry about Autechre crafting “repetitive beats,” as instead they switch it up with a palpable fury. You can feel jolts of energy coursing through each of the three tracks here, capped by “Flutter,” widely considered the greatest IDM track of all-time.

Tri Repetae

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At a time when peers like Boards of Canada were releasing the bucolic breakbeats of Twoism and Aphex Twin was mischievously revealing a more playful and more caustic side to him with …I Care Because You Do, Tri Repetae arrived in 1995 like something beamed from Skynet. From the pewter cover and mysterious machine inner art to the car cruncher beats within, it sounded like nothing else in electronic music. Hard, minimal, and repetitive on the surface, Booth and Brown elevated their craft to a new level, kindling warmth just beneath.

LP5

By any measure, 1998 was a peak year for electronic music, with classics like Music Has the Right to Children, Mezzanine, and Moon Safari all being released. Autechre’s fifth album belongs in that hallowed company, masterfully balancing heady complexity and emotional directness. If Thelonious Monk made techno, it might sound like this—wrong and right, all spiky and smooth, yet in proper proportion. The beat programming remains bewildering, but there’s something undeniable about the graceful melodies billowing around each track.

EP7

Less than a year after LP5, Booth and Brown dropped this hefty hour-long set of tracks. EP7 finds them building on their prior album’s success, but in a more playful mood. Timbres evoke the likes of oboe, organ, or steel drums, but they are fleeting enough to feel like aural hallucinations, as drums either skitter or glug like they’re underwater. Soon after, they would go deep into experimental new sounds, but here anthems and abstraction all hang together.

Oversteps

After years sounding like the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in electronic music, Autechre spent the first decade in the 21st century deep in experimental fields, exploring the realms of microsound and granular synthesis. With Oversteps, the duo moved a bit closer to Earth. Favoring woozy ambience and disembodied drifts (and even gentleness!), the chiming tones here can bring to mind stately harpsichord music. It’s the closest Autechre came to making modern classical music, a harmonious outlier in an otherwise chaotic discography.

NTS Sessions 1, 2, 3 & 4

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Starting with 2013’s two-hour long Exai, Autechre’s music started to arrive in a deluge. Elseq topped four hours, and a span of hard-drive-busting live shows were also released. Even favorable reviews compared it to dumping off a bag of used clothes or bingeing on Netflix, but when Booth-Brown took to the NTS airwaves, the resultant NTS Sessions were nothing short of a triumph. Clocking in at eight hours, Autechre are now wholly freed from the constraints of time, giving them the latitude to go down every wormhole and scale every peak. Hour-long ambient immersions, twitchy digi-funk, electro bangers, crackling dirges, garbled freestyle, and more, NTS not only finds them drifting further, but also forging ahead into new terrain.

SIGN

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After spending most of the past seven years going to the outermost reaches of their universe, Autechre’s 13th album is the sound of the duo coming full circle (as its cover art suggests). Distilled and concise, the songs are a tad more gentle and approachable. Autechre for the most part keeps to the restrained palette of Oversteps. Paring back the beats to let their melting ice cap melodic sensibilities take center stage, the effect feels desolate and elegiac at once. Which isn’t to suggest that you won’t also happen upon moments that sound like a bubble machine with a loose ground wire. Abstract as the duo still gets, SIGN serves as a gateway for the next generation of Autechre fans.

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