Autechre

Autechre-3

In electronic music these days, there’s an arms race to see who can produce the most elaborate visual spectacle possible — usually to distract from the fact without said spectacle, all the audience would be looking at is one or two people hunched over laptops. And hey, I love a good gee-whiz show as much as the next aging raver — especially when it marries futuristic glitch to museum-quality stage design, like Amon Tobin’s 3D-projection mapped ISAM tour did in 2012. But you know what I love even more? The fact that British duo Autechre have done a complete 180 and now perform most of their shows in total darkness — or as close to total darkness as pesky things like fire codes will allow for (darn those vibe-killing yet potentially life-saving “Exit” signs).

I was lucky enough to see Sean Booth and Rob Brown perform in this format here in L.A. in 2015, and it was, in its own way, more mind-blowing than any EDM laser light show. Autechre’s music, which the Mancunian duo records and performs on a customized aggregation of software, patches and virtual synths called “the system,” is so dense and alien-sounding that, over the course of 90 minutes, it begins to fill a darkened room with something close to a physical presence. Sounds seem to leap and dart around you in three dimensions; you become aware of how certain bass frequencies register not just as sound but as a physical sensation, rumbling somewhere just behind your collarbone.

Hearing live music in the dark has other, more pragmatic advantages, as well. The shadowy, still-faintly-visible head of that one six-foot-four dude who of course planted himself right in front of you just as the music was starting? After a few minutes, you forget all about stretch and his fat noggin. Also, you spend way less money on beer when it’s too dark to see where the bar is. Thanks, Autechre!

Even with the lights on, Autechre’s music is out-there enough to merit a spot on the Weird List. They’re second only to Aphex Twin among pioneers of the ’90s style of stuttering, off-kilter, glitchy electronic music lumped under the unfortunate but convenient heading of IDM, or intelligent dance music (hey, it was either that or “what the fuck is this shit?”). Over the years, as they’ve added to and perfected “the system,” their sound has evolved beyond its early influences — which included everything from ’80s hip-hop to electro-industrial experimenters Coil and Meat Beat Manifesto to avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen — to become a genre unto itself, a manifestation of its own closed-loop schemata, with the machines acting as a third band member, chasing algorithms to increasingly bent, bloopy, intricately polyrhythmic ends.

Autechre didn’t start out weird. Aside from a jokey spoken-word intro in which a dentist tells his patient to “lean back and relax” before we hear a drill and the patient’s agonized, gargling moans, their first single “Cavity Job” was a pretty standard piece of early ’90s British acid house, with the kind of pulsating synths and looped breakbeats already popularized by acts like Orbital and A Guy Called Gerald. Their second album, Amber, on the influential Warp label (also home to Aphex Twin), was a largely ambient affair — trippy, but not a radical departure from what many other chill-room electronic acts were doing at the time.

Then, in 1994 — less than a year after Amber — they released a three-song EP called Anti that was both bold sonic experiment and political statement. The EP’s final track, “Flutter,” was a jittery, shapeshifting beast composed in response to a British law that outlawed raves. Since the law defined raves as parties that featured music played as a “succession of repetitive beats,” Brown and Booth programmed “Flutter” to contain beats that never exactly repeated themselves — a fact they called out on the album’s packaging, though they slyly cautioned DJs against playing it in public without “a lawyer and musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.” It’s arguably the first example of instrumental electronic music explicitly used as a form of political protest. It’s also probably the earliest Autechre track that fully embraces the glitchy, non-linear style for which they’re now best-known.

As the ’90s wore on and “electronica” had its first big commercial boom, thanks to acts like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, Autechre’s music continued down a much different path, getting weirder, harsher and more abstract with each passing release. Their music videos reflected this — especially the 1996 clip for “Second Bad Vilbel,” which marked the directorial debut of Chris Cunningham, who would go on to make groundbreaking videos for Björk and Aphex Twin among others. (Cunningham wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the original, so he released a re-edit of it in 2002; this is that later version.)

As Autechre’s music got more abstract, so did their album and song titles: Chiastic Slide, Envane, “Goz Quarter,” “Calbruc,” “VI Scose Poise.” Most of the words are random nonsense, but some recurring ones have specific meanings to Brown and Booth that they have a hard time articulating. When a Pitchfork interviewer asked them about the word “casual” in several song titles, for example, Brown explained that they label “catalog shelf stuff” with similar traits. “It’s fucking real difficult to explain exactly what we mean by them,” Booth added. “We know. If Rob says, ‘I’ve got some more casuals here, do you want them,’ I’ll know exactly what he means. But I can’t put into words what it is.” (Side note: The duo has also said that there is no official, correct way to pronounce their name. They say “aw-TEK-er” in a Mancunian accent, but I’ve also heard “AH-tek-ur” and even “aw-TEK-cruh” like they’re French or something. But hey, go nuts and say it however you want.)

By the early 2000s, Autechre were both elder statesmen of IDM and among its most forward-thinking practitioners. On tracks like 2002’s “Gantz Graf” — given an excellently psychedelic yet cyborg-like video by British graphic artist Alex Rutterford — they chop, splice and stutter programmed beats and synthesizers until it sounds like machines howling in agony, or ecstasy, or possible both.

These days, in addition to their lights-out shows, Brown, Booth and their “system” continue to churn out new music at an astonishing rate. Their 2016 album elseq 1-5 contained over four hours of music, and this year they followed that up with another eight hours of music, originally presented over four two-hour segments on NTS Radio back in April and released last month both digitally and as either an 8-CD or 12-LP box set under the title NTS Sessions 1-4. (Although Booth has said of past Autechre releases that the “actual” product is the lossless FLAC files — the implication being that anything else is a derivative version that may not be a 100% accurate representation of the duo’s original work.) I couldn’t find any excerpts of the NTS Sessions on YouTube except a few that were uploaded at half-speed and double-speed (Autechre fans are kooky, y’all) but you can listen to the whole thing on Autechre’s official site or on Spotify. Next time you have eight hours to kill, I highly recommend it. Listening to the whole thing is like meditating inside a broken CD player. That’s falling down a really long flight of stairs. Made of mercury. And acid. There’s definitely something having to do with acid in there somewhere.

Before I play out this post with an amazing unofficial video for a track from my favorite Autechre album, 2008’s Quaristice, I want to leave you with a couple of quotes from Sean Booth. The first comes from the aforementioned Pitchfork interview and is especially relevant to this blog, because in it, Booth makes a case — which I completely agree with — that today’s audiences are more primed than ever for weird music, even though much of what they’re getting is cookie-cutter and derivative:

“One of the things about the internet is that everybody can be very quickly educated on music, but that’s a double-edged sword, because you’ve got a bunch of artists who are desperate to fit in. Everyone’s in a rush to sound the same. At the same time you’ve got this audience who have got access to fucking everything that was ever made, so the audience is actually extremely sophisticated. It’s a weird paradox. You hear a lot of stuff with the same kind of synth lead and the same sucky compression and the same kick drums, the same long chords. It’s incredibly conservative. Then you’ve got this audience who know about Xenakis and Stockhausen and they’re fucking 16-year-olds. I see that as a great opportunity to make things that are genuinely a bit weird.”

The second quote comes from a long Q&A on the electronic fan forum site watmm.com from 2013 (and which I’m cribbing from Pitchfork’s review of NTS Sessions 1-4 — I’m not usually all up in Pitchfork’s business like this but when it comes to Autechre, they know their stuff) in which someone asked Booth what an Autechre dance track might sound like today and he replied, “but we are making dance music.” Damn straight they are. Trust me, if you listen to this shit long enough, you can totally dance to it. To others it might look like more you’re having a stroke, but that’s just part of the fun.

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Venetian Snares

venetian-snares-daniel-lanois

We’re big fans of breakcore here at TWBITW. Whether it’s the tongue-in-cheek, piss-take version favored by Anklepants, the booty bass hybrid pioneered by Otto von Schirach or the “baroquecore” classical-meets-glitch mayhem of early Igorrr, breakcore is just inexhaustibly weird. So I’m not sure how we managed to avoid adding genre godfather Venetian Snares to The Weird List, but we’ll fix that right now.

Snares, as he’s known to fans, was born Aaron Funk in Winnipeg, Manitoba — a Canadian city where there’s so little to do (one Venetian Snares album is actually called Winnipeg Is a Frozen Shithole) that young Aaron used to entertain himself by riding his bike around looking for objects to bang on, recording the sounds on a boom box, then playing those sounds back into another boom box to layer them on top of each other. “Then I would do cut-ups or pause-ups of those tapes to create a more startling rhythmic effect,” he told Trebuchet magazine in 2004. “A strange ritual in retrospect.” No kidding.

From those early cut-up experiments, Funk graduated to using OctaMED and Cubase to produce the increasingly intricate, assaultive drum programming for which he’s still best-know. Venetian Snares never met a 4/4 tempo he couldn’t twist into something that sounds like a drum machine having a seizure. Here’s an aptly titled taste of his early work, from 1999.

You can hear some Aphex Twin influences in there, as well as other mid-’90s acts later associated with the breakcore tag like Alec Empire and Nasenbluten. But even at this early stage, Venetian Snares (he came up with the name because his densely cascading snare rolls sounded, as he put it, “like running a pencil down Venetian blinds“) was clearly on some other shit.

From there, Snares’ sound mutated from album to album almost as unpredictably as his drum breaks. He chopped up jazz and pop samples on Higgins Ultra Low Track Glue Funk Hits 1976-2002 and The Chocolate Wheelchair Album; played chicken with orchestral music on 2005’s mind-blowing Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (Hungarian for Born Under a Bad Sign); and collaborated with Austrian producer Rachael Kozak, best-known under her alias Hecate, on an album called Nymphomatriarch made up entirely of sampled sounds of them having sex. (Surprisingly, despite its highly unusual genesis, Nymphomatriarch is actually one of the least bizarre-sounding things in Aaron Funk’s discography. Less surprisingly, Kozak’s role in co-producing the album has often been met with sexist condescension in the media, prompting her to write a lengthy blog post in 2016 defending herself.)

More recently, Funk has undertaken what may be his most unlikely collaboration yet: teaming up fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois, best-known as U2’s co-producer (with Brian Eno) and creator of his own starkly beautiful ambient music, featuring lots of pedal steel guitar. Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois, which just came out this month, takes that steel guitar and juxtaposes it against Snares’ fractured breakbeats to often startling effect. It’s not the first time glitchy electronic music has been combined with pedal steel — that honor, to the best of my knowledge, goes to Luke Vibert, aka Wagon Christ, who did an album called Stop the Panic with British steel guitarist B.J. Cole in 2000. But where that album went for a jaunty, tropical vibe, Lanois and Snares come up with something way more eerie, experimental and unexpected. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year so far, weird or otherwise.

But if that’s not odd enough for you, I’ll leave you with the title track from Snares’ 2014 album, My Love Is a Bulldozer. Just when you thought Aaron Funk’s music couldn’t get any more off the rails, he starts singing about his dick.

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Aphex Twin releases first track from “Syro”

Aphex Twin

In less than three weeks, we’ll finally get to hear Syro, the first new album of Aphex Twin material from electronica demigod Richard D. James in 13 years. But for us impatient types (read: every single Aphex Twin fan on the planet), the enigmatic producer gave us an early treat today: a YouTube stream of Syro‘s first track. “minipops 67 [120.2][sourcefield mix]” is a deliciously sexy slab of old-school breaks and ambient techno, with vocoder vocals and what sounds like a combination of vintage synths and 808s. It’s maybe not the most ground-breaking thing James has ever released, but it’s atmospheric and, to no one’s surprise, impeccably produced.

We meant to tell you all about a series of Syro listening parties happening all over Europe and North America starting tomorrow, but apparently you had to RSVP to them by last Tuesday. Oops. Instead, you’ll just have to settle for the Syro track list. We’re not sure what the numbers mean; presumably they’re part of some system James has for cataloging unreleased material, but it’s hard to say. Could he really have 163 unreleased songs? He did claim a few years ago that he was sitting on at least six albums’ worth of new material, so it’s possible. [Update: Astute reader friendsound points out that “minipops 67” is at a tempo of 120.2 BPM, so that’s actually what the numbers refer to. Mystery solved!]

Syro tracklist:

01. minipops 67 [120.2][sourcefield mix]
02. XMAS_EVET10 [120][thanaton3 mix]
03. produk 29 [101]
04. 4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]
05. 180db_ [130]
06. CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix]
07. fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]
08. CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymoming mix]
09. syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix]
10. PAPAT4 [155][pineal mix]
11. s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]
12. aisatsana [102]

Syro arrives Sept. 23rd in the U.S. (Sept. 22nd everywhere else) on Warp Records. You can pre-order it here.

Weird of the Day: Lauren Bousfield, “Cracknight”

Lauren Bousfield

Some artists are just too weird for any one genre to contain. After getting pigeonholed in the breakcore and chiptune scenes while working under the name Nero’s Day at Disneyland, Sacramento-based producer Lauren Bousfield dropped that moniker and began making even stranger music under his her own name. As great as Nero’s Day was—and some of it was pretty flippin’ fantastic—Bousfield’s first solo album, Avalon Vales, is even better, because it refuses to stay in one place, skipping across genres like a rock across a pond. It still owes a debt to more experimental breakcore producers like Venetian Snares, but it’s on its own trip. No wonder one of his genre tags on Bandcamp is just “____.”

You can stream the whole towering, beautiful mess that is Avalon Vales on Bandcamp. Meanwhile, for a little taste, check out this video for the aptly named “Cracknight,” and remember, if you ever have Bousfield over for dinner, don’t let him her anywhere near the electrical tape.

Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin

If you heard a loud cheer in the distance on Monday intercut with what sounded like a skipping CD player, you heard the sound of Richard D. James’ fans rejoicing at the news that, for the first time in 13 years, there will be an official new album from Aphex Twin, the production alter ego through which the reclusive, mercurial man from Cornwall released some of the most game-changing electronic music of the ’90s.

True to form, James didn’t make the announcement with a simple press release. Instead, he launched a goddamn blimp with the Aphex Twin logo inside the zero of “2014” over London, then sent fans treasure-hunting into the deep web to uncover the new album’s title and track list. Turns out the new disc will be called Syro; no word yet on a release date. (If you, like us, have no idea how to get to the deep web, some kind soul mirrored the hidden Aphex Twin page here. But you might still need some help deciphering it.)

James has never really done anything conventional over the course of his 20-plus-year career. After first making a name for himself primarily as a producer of ambient music, James helped invent a twitchier, more experimental style of electronica that came to be known as “Intelligent Dance Music” or IDM (a term James himself has disavowed). His many forays into other new sounds and styles also influenced everything from glitch to breakbeat to drill ‘n’ bass. Just in terms of the sheer number of genres he helped shape or invent, he’s arguably the most influential electronic music artist since Kraftwerk.

Towards the end of the ’90s, James’s Aphex Twin releases began to take on a more satirical bent, especially when accompanied by a pair of groundbreaking videos he made with director Chris Cunningham. 1997’s “Come to Daddy” began, by James’s own account, as a death metal piss-take, before evolving into one of the first and most influential glitchcore tracks. Most of you have probably seen it before, but for those of you who haven’t, fair warning: It’s genuinely disturbing.

The creepy Richard James masks are a recurring motif in many Aphex Twin videos, as well as much of his album art (the cover of 1996’s Richard D. James being the most famous). For his second video with Chris Cunningham, 1999’s “Windowlicker,” they took an even more unsettling turn. (Most of you have seen this video, too, but another warning for those who haven’t: the first four minutes feature more N-bombs than Samuel L. Jackson’s entire filmography).

Prior to the announcement of Syro, the last proper Aphex Twin album was 2001’s Drukqs, a double album that alternated between pretty ambient works performed mostly on a computer-controlled piano and glitchier tracks featuring lots of intricate drum programming and melodic synths. He followed that up in 2003 with a remix compilation with the brilliantly cynical title 26 Mixes for Cash, and a 2005 collection of 42 acid house tracks released under the name Analord (he loves aliases; AFX, Polygon Window, GAK and Bradley Strider are among his others). Then, for the most part, he fell silent.

In the decade since, James has surfaced occasionally, at one point even claiming that he had six completed albums’ worth of Aphex Twin material. He’s rumored to be behind an anonymous glitch group called The Tuss, which released some music on James’s Rephlex label in 2007, but he’s never copped to it. He’s definitely behind an odd release earlier this year under the name Caustic Window—odd because the album, a relatively restrained foray into ambient techno and tech-house, was never really meant to be released. Recorded in 1994 but scrapped after just a test pressing, only a few vinyl copies of Caustic Window ever found their way into circulation, occasionally trading hands for thousands of dollars. Finally, some enterprising fans raised the necessary money to buy a copy and release it digitally (with James’s blessing) via a Kickstarter campaign this past June.

But all this activity aside, Syro is still the first official release of new Aphex Twin material in over a decade, which makes it a Very Big Deal in electronic music circles.

One other interesting thing to note about Richard James is that he’s really into hiding images inside his music—literally. At the end of track two of the Windowlicker EP, “Equation” (or as it’s officially titled, “ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]]”), he conceals his trademark creepy grinning visage inside the last few seconds of the track’s spectrogram (which you can see here). And on the 2001 EP 2 Remixes by AFX, what sounds like a bunch of piercing, test-signal high frequencies is actually an SSTV transmission, which can be decoded with the appropriate software into what we’re told is an image of James sitting on a couch, along with some text listing all the software used to make the EP (although we couldn’t find this image online anywhere).

While we’re all anxiously awaiting the arrival of Syro, we’ll leave you with another of Aphex Twin’s greatest weird videos, from a 1995 EP called Donkey Rhubarb. Chris Cunningham did not direct this one, so it’s not quite as artful as “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy,” but the Teletubbie-like creatures cavorting around with James’s illustrated face (from the cover of his 1995 album I Care Because You Do) are pretty entertaining. Apparently he brought them out on tour for awhile and used them to mess with the audience before shows. He’s a prankster, that Richard D. James.

In fact, come to think of it, we probably shouldn’t believe he’s releasing a new Aphex Twin album until the day it actually arrives. There’s a good chance he could just be punking us. Or it’ll arrive, but it’ll be in binary code, or embedded in a microchip that can only be played via Apple IIc. Or maybe he’ll drop the only copies out of a blimp. Who knows?

Or, knowing Mr. James and his perverse sense of humor, maybe he’ll pull the ultimate prank on his audiophile fans and only release it via iTunes.

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Weird of the Day: Plaid, “Itsu”

Plaid

We’ve been getting into the idea of having regular “Flashback Fridays” here at TWBITW. Last week we went into the vaults for some ’70s Italian exorcist rock with Jacula; the week before that, it was ’60s NYC freak folk courtesy of The Godz. The past is fun!

This week, we’re taking the ol’ Wayback Machine for a more leisurely spin, cruising back to the more recent past of 2003. That’s when British electronic duo Plaid made this truly amazing video for “Itsu,” the opening track off Dial P, a mix album that was released only as a bonus insert in some copies of their 2003 album Spokes. Like most Plaid tracks, the music itself is frisky and experimental, with lots of sudden left turns between soothing, ambient electronica and glitchier, breakbeat-fueled passages. But it’s the video that really stands out here. You may never be able to sit through a PowerPoint presentation with a straight face again.

Good luck finding a copy of Dial P—only 2,000 copies were ever made and they’re in very limited circulation. But if you want to find a copy of Plaid’s latest album, Reachy Prints, which just came out in May, that’s easy enough: Just try Amazon. (It’s pretty weird, too, but we couldn’t feature it because hey, it’s Flashback Friday.) And for more of the deliciously offbeat sounds of Plaid, check out their official website.

Weird of the Day: Venetian Snares, “Welfare Wednesday”

Venetian Snares

I’m in the midst of doing a big article about breakcore for another website (yeah, they occasionally let me out of my cage here at TWBITW), so I’ve spent the past several days plunging down the rabbit hole of twisted “Amen” breaks, distorted basslines and machine-gun snares. So far, I’ve yet to find a track crazier than this little number from Venetian Snares’ 2010 album, My So-Called Life. But give me another day or two and I’m sure I can top it, ’cause breakcore is batshit.

As coincidence would have it, Venetian Snares released a new album just last week, his first since My So-Called Life. It’s called My Love Is a Bulldozer and you can preview tracks or order up a copy via Planet Mu Records or Amazon.com. That’s the cover art at the top of this post, by the way. And yes, the music is as awesome as the cover.