A Token of My Extreme: Autechre- Confield (2001)
Warp Records; April 30, 2001
Sean Booth and Rob Brown's brainchild Autechre is, in many ways, the standard bearer of "intelligent dance music" (IDM), which, along with being an embarassingly condescending and highfalutin label to apply to yourself, is basically code for envelope-pushing electronic music that only androids could dance to. While there are beats often shared by the likes of more conventional house and techno music, they are often in time signatures you'd have to send off to NASA to calculate. Often cold, oppressive, and not terribly fun, this is music for the left side of your brain to dissect, not for dry humping on club dancefloors.
The end result sounds like it would be boring. Confield, the duo's sixth full-length record, is anything but.
See, most IDM is indeed cerebral, but it still sounds like the programmed work of humans using a colorful palette of electronic beats and samples. Take Aphex Twin, for example--even on his most out-there soundscapes, Richard D. James' twisted humor still prevails in the form of a quirky sample or deliberately obnoxious noise and gives them a human grounding, even if somewhat detached. Autechre, on the other hand, don't so much make music as they transcribe the gray, monochromatic language of machines, and Confield is basically the sound of those machines flipping out on acid.
This is extremely abstract stuff. Ofttimes on Confield there aren't even BEATS per se, just spliced pulses of sound that falter and skip haphazardly throughout the track, or strange rumbling, grinding or twinkling noises (the first thing you hear is "VI Scose Poise"'s main synth line, which sounds like a metal ball bouncing inside a huge pipe). In "Pen Expers," an obscure melody gradually insinuates its way in only to be overwhelmed by the surrounding textures, flailing in its death throes against a merciless storm of chopped-up beats. The dissonant synths and distant tremors of "Eidetic Casein" eventually coalesce into the soundtrack of a horror film, circa 2105. The most challenging track "Lentic Catachresis" sounds like two computers having a very heated argument, glitchy screams getting louder and louder over the course of nine minutes and ending as abruptly as it started. Even the most accessible track "Cfern" has an ominous feel as its splintered beats and bell-like melody speed up and gradually mutate into something dark and foreboding. But there is still beauty in these fractured transmissions, albeit a very alien variety.
Despite its daunting inaccessibility, this is one of the least calculated-feeling releases in Autechre's growing oeuvre. Earlier releases like Tri Repetae have a more logical feel about them--beats and melodies the result of tried and tested formulas, resolving in a cold, predictable manner. While they are still excellent albums, they sound more sterile--music designed to evoke clean, modernist sculpture. Confield is dark, scattered, fucked up, the sound of breakdown and decay. It feels like electronic free jazz, you never know what to expect even on a third or fourth listen.
It's somewhat telling that the duo hit a wall after this polarizing album, and decided to add more a bit more structure and ambient leanings to future recordings lest they fall off the edge into sheer noise, territory better reserved for the likes of Akita Merzbow. But in the meantime, Booth & Brown have unwittingly (or knowingly?) created the soundtrack of a grim dystopian future--not the post-apocalyptic atavism of Mad Max, but a world where nanotech has consumed humanity and all that's left are the self-aware machines that have already begun their descent into mindless decadence and seething malevolence.
Yes, I know I'm not Philip K. Dick. I'll shut the fuck up now.
Hoo boy. This is a very tough album to like, considering it has functioned as a line in the sand for Autechre fans after nine years on the market. Good luck for anyone else.
If you're new to Autechre, I'd recommend starting with Tri Repetae++ (it includes the original album plus two excellent EP's, Anvil Vapre and Garbage). The albums before that (Amber, Incunabula) lean more toward the melodic and ambient side, while the albums after that get progressively tougher peaking with Confield, then a bit more accessible (but still pretty challenging). The 2008 release Quaristice is a nice synthesis of their latter-period sound with some of the earlier ambient leanings, so it wouldn't be a bad second choice. If you're new to electronic music however, Autechre is definitely not the first stop I'd recommend. Try some Squarepusher (Feed Me Weird Things is an IDM essential) or Aphex Twin (particularly Ambient Works Vol 1 & 2, and maybe the Richard D. James Album) before coming here.