- Melodies are memorable. They activate chemicals in your brain like a key turning a lock. Autechre wouldn't have become so well-known without great melodies. Their early records, for this reason, remain their best-loved by a great many people. You can hum along to "Bike" or "Autriche" or "Slip." They're approachable and digestible.
Repetition provides familiarity, too. Music without clear repetition is often described as chaotic. As Autechre started using probability and intertwined networks to sequence and control sounds, their tracks became longer and less repetitive. Critics started describing the music as impenetrable. elseq 1-5, said Andrew Ryce, "moves without rhyme or reason, and resists whatever narrative you might want to put on it." Peter Chambers once said of Quaristice, "If this is the cutting edge, then it has become a blunt and pointless object."
If you're after melodies and repetition, Autechre stepped off a precipice in the mid-'90s. They've been falling ever since. Those who followed were led into one of the most labyrinthine sound worlds in modern music. Records like Quaristice, Oversteps and Exai are equally respected and maligned. They don't appeal to conventional sensibilities. Melody, repetition and clear structure are only mirages on the horizon.
The often overlooked fact, though, is that Autechre have been steadily refining their craft. Over the past decade or so, important refinements were being made that are now coming to fruition. Especially since elseq 1-5 and the live recordings of 2015, patterns have emerged. Tones and grooves have become familiar. We're still being led down a discombobulating maze. But the logic governing the twists and turns is becoming clearer and more powerful.
The sound world of NTS Sessions 1-4, which debuted live on the London-based radio station NTS over the past few weeks, is still one of vast possibilities, but the overall palette is coming into relief. There are the metallic, morphing prisms of frequency modulation; the scrubbing scree of microsound; freezing comb filters and splintered shards of feedback; interconnected networks of envelopes, gates and sequencers, all playing off each other. This cursory list barely scratches the surface of what Autechre are up to, but the point is that there's a sound signature here that provides a semblance of orientation, even if it's bamboozling by nature.
The upshot is that NTS Sessions 1-4 feels like a pinnacle. It's as if the preceding decades of work were acts of research leading to this point. The eight-hour package is still imposing and non-linear. But it can make a huge, memorable impression, even with only traces of straight-up melodies and repetition. And when those moments do come, like in "carefree counter dronal," "32a_reflected" or "eO," it's a revelation.
"four of seven" is a relatively straightforward electro track made exceptional by the sensitivity and liveliness of the sound design. (It's almost funny when Autechre gesture toward "normal" music in this way—"four of seven" might even get some club play.) "gonk steady one" becomes similarly funky around the halfway mark, too. The awe-inspiring "violvoic" falls on the other end of the spectrum, containing some of the most evocative, bewildering and downright fucked-up synthesis out there.
The range Autechre get out their patches is staggering. You can feel their own sense of discovery as they're pushing and pulling parameters. They navigate treacherous skies but they always breach the cloud line, providing clarity, a sense of scale and structure. Even though they're challenging themselves, there's no doubt as to who's created the rules.
"tt1pd" is another virtuosic display. You can feel them searching out sweet spots in the patch, alternately conjuring screaming twisted metal, high-pressure blow-off valves, a billion broken cellos, a fleet of disgruntled lawnmowers and more besides. What words can't describe is the space between these sound images, where we're morphing from one thing to the next. "xflood," meanwhile, sounds like Ligeti jamming with Gerald Donald. "shimripl air" summons aurora borealis out of the night sky. "gonk tuf hi" definitely needed the word "gonk" in the title.
If you've been skeptical of Autechre, you'd best check the fourth session. Once we course through "frane casual" we're hit by "mirrage," one of the most concise and beautiful ambient pieces Autechre have ever produced. It seeps perfectly into "column thirteen," which is sublimely bizarre, warm and enveloping. There's something strangely suggestive here. Perhaps it's the melodic synth arps that seem to so faintly echo Amber's inquisitive hues. "shimripl casual" deserves a paragraph for itself, but "all end" manages to outstrip it. Almost an hour long yet somehow brisk, it's like a cathedral filled with billions of vibrating light particles, ebbing and convulsing in great waves.
Despite the overload of material, listening to each of the sessions front to back reveals a narrative arc as compelling as in any of their 2015 live recordings. For music that's so detailed on the micro scale, the most arresting moments are the macro-structural pay-offs. Additionally, premiering the pieces live on NTS provided a semblance of a shared experience. It's been great watching fans' commentary online as each episode has been broadcast.
The majority of artists in Autechre's cohort either dropped off in quality or entered the extended victory lap period of their careers. Partly because their music doesn't contain the melody and repetition of, say, an Aphex Twin, critics haven't been especially vocal about how unusual it is that Autechre, an already insanely overdeveloped act, are still developing. NTS Sessions 1-4 will elicit the same critiques as any Autechre album in the last decade, but it's their best record in many years.
04. l3 ctrl
05. carefree counter dronal
06. north spiral
07. gonk steady one
08. four of seven
10. elyc9 7hres
11. six of eight (midst)
13. gonk tuf hi
14. dummy casual pt2
16. sinistrailAB air
17. wetgelis casual interval
19. peal MA
20. 9 chr0
21. turbile epic casual, stpl idle
22. clustro casual
25. acid mwan idle
27. glos ceramic
28. g 1 e 1
30. shimripl air
32. frane casual
34. column thirteen (edited)
35. shimripl casual
36. all end