I came to Autechre through Nine Inch Nails. In 1992, Trent Reznor and his manager John Malm formed Nothing Records to release the Broken EP while they extricated NIN from their contract with TVT. Once Reznor signed with Interscope, Nothing became a real label, releasing all of Nine Inch Nails’ music until 2004, the Natural Born Killers and Lost Highway soundtracks (which Reznor compiled), and albums by Marilyn Manson, Meat Beat Manifesto, Pop Will Eat Itself, then ex-Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s industrial project 2wo, and more. By the late ’90s, flush with the success of his own The Downward Spiral and Manson’s Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals, Reznor and Nothing signed a licensing deal with the UK label Warp, which allowed them to release albums by Squarepusher, Plaid, and Autechre.
By 1998, Autechre — the duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown — were at a crossroads, commercially and creatively. They had released four full-length albums to date: Incunabula, Amber, Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide. Along the way, they had gradually transitioned from making pretty-if-abstract tracks that fit nicely under the “Intelligent Dance Music”/”braindance” umbrella to assembling barbed, jagged collages of booming, irregular beats and weird crunching sounds. The regular beats and conventionally pretty synths of their first two albums had already started to vanish by 1995’s Anvil Vapre EP. By 1997’s Chiastic Slide — the only one of their albums never to be released in the US — the music sounded like the machines being used to make it were falling apart, and moaning to each other as they died.
LP5, which came out 20 years ago (on July 13, 1998 to be precise), represented a sharp turn off that path. It’s technically untitled; the first edition of the CD arrived in an opaque black jewel case with just the band’s name embossed in lower case on the front. Inside was a white cardboard sheet with the track listing, the Nothing and Warp logos, and a single line of legalese. It was as close to a “here’s the music; that’s all you need to know” statement as possible.
Autechre could get away with that, because by 1998 their work was about as close to pure “organized sound,” in composer Edgard Varèse’s phrase, as popular music released on mainstream labels got. On LP5, the beats were densely layered so that one was always conflicting with the others, and the melodies seemed to be in direct conflict with the rhythms, as though trying to be heard over them, to no avail. But the industrial-strength crunching and pounding of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide was gone. This new Autechre music was inhumanly abstract, but clean and beautiful in its way.
The album begins with “Acroyear2.” First, you hear a series of small pinging and zapping sounds, like your alarm clock has achieved sentience and decided it still wants to wake you up, but it doesn’t want to be rude about it. That lasts exactly 30 seconds. Then a frantic, stuttering beat launches, but it’s only a “beat” in the sense that it’s a percussive pattern. It sounds like rain barrels being struck with rubber hoses, and there are far too many impacts within a given measure to pick out which ones you’re supposed to respond to. It may take five or six listens before you’re even able to count them. Furthermore, they manage the trick of making the beat fast and complicated, but never aggressive. It’s a really friendly form of sensory overload. Autechre make dance music for bodies with more than the standard number of limbs. Atop that already baffling rhythm track, they layer at least two and sometimes three different synth melodies, all of which are operating simultaneously but not together. And this — nearly nine minutes of this — is how they choose to open the album.
The next track, “777,” is about an eighth of a step closer to traditional dance music. Sounds, particularly percussive sounds and what I can only describe as heavy sproings, are constantly coming at you from the far corners of the stereo field, while an extremely fast techno-ish melody zips by in the middle of the mix. There’s one bouncing beat that you can latch onto and bob your head to. Still, it feels like it was constructed by a neural network rather than a human brain.
After a slower, crunchier piece (“Rae”), you get a break. “Melve” is a 75-second interlude that sounds now, in retrospect, like it inspired at least half the songs on Radiohead’s Kid A. You can absolutely imagine a sad robot sitting in an empty room, poking out this mournful melody on a little keyboard.
In the second half of the album, things change. There seems to be more air in the music, somehow. Although every sound is still entirely computer-generated, some of them, like the weird whooshes and boings at the beginning of “Under BOAC,” sound like manipulated field recordings from a factory or someplace. That track also features human voices(!), but they’re so warped they’re indecipherable. The repetitive pattern — “rhythm” would be overselling it — underpinning the album’s second interlude, the 101-second “Caliper Remote,” sounds like a tin can being cut apart with scissors. Because it was a CD released in 1998, there’s a hidden track: “Drane2″ runs 9:38, journeying from high-volume throb-and-drone to an almost music-box coda in that time, but there’s 12 minutes of silence after that, before you get another 1:40 of small zaps, pings and boings to bring everything home.
The more you listen to LP5, the more it makes sense. On the fifth or sixth play, it ceases to be overwhelming, and you realize that most of their compositions really only have two or three elements — they’re like techno tracks in that way, or the ’80s electro that Booth and Brown have always called their biggest influence. Armed with that knowledge, you can start listening to just one sound, and following it through from beginning to end, like tracing a vein on your arm. It’s at that point that the album really starts to reveal itself, and become so beautiful it’s like watching an endlessly spinning, deceptively intricate sculpture of chrome and glass twirl in the sunlight.
Autechre followed LP5 with EP7, which was nearly an hour long and almost “more of the same.” They also created a four-track Peel Session in 1999 that felt like the end of this particular aesthetic road. The melody of its opening track, “Gelk,” might just break your brain — it’s like a robot heard Diana Ross’s “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” beamed into space and tried to answer back. Their next full-length album, 2001’s Confield, began a new journey, more technically complex, more abstract and posthuman, but also more beautiful: “VI Scose Poise” is one of the most beautiful tracks they’ve ever created.
In recent years, Autechre have transformed themselves again and again. Their recent work is heavier and more forbidding, combining elements of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide with a willingness to let tracks run on and on, like environmental recordings from a distant planet made entirely of gritty metallic ores. Their 2016 release, elseq 1-5, was more than four hours long, and was only available digitally. This year’s NTS Sessions 1-4 offers eight full hours of music in four two-hour chunks. The final track on the final set, “all end,” runs a staggering 58:21 all by itself. But on LP5, they demonstrated that concision, beauty and grace were crucial tools in their kit, and in the process — with a little help from Trent Reznor, and Interscope’s distribution muscle — found a surprisingly large audience for their weird, abstract soundscapes.