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Autechre - AE_LIVE 2016/2018 (2020)


What was best concert you've ever been to? How much of it do you actually remember? The human brain has a tendency to squash experiences down into bite-sized sensory snippets and emphasise emotional impact, leaving us with heartening yet endlessly fallible recollections of past events. Now if you could hear that gig again, exactly as it sounded, what would that do to the memory?

This is what I'll be exploring with the release of MELBOURNE_220618, one of seven soundboards recently released by electronic heavyweights Autechre as AE_LIVE 2016/2018. Quick caveat, this show actually took place on the 21st of June as I saw them in Tasmania on the 22nd, but erroneous titles aside let's move on. This tour, known by fans as 'onesix',  explored the 'deep mixing' practices of their studio work this decade, presenting dense palettes of post-human ambient and contorting them into sounds unheard.

It's an approach to archiving one's work that's surprisingly rare among artists, and shouldn't just fascinate Melbournites wanting to relive the night. Presenting multiples of the same set list allows for an auditory spot-the-difference of sorts, emphasising human input within an endless sea of algorithmic generation. I should explain.

The Manchester duo, Rob Brown and Sean Booth, first surfaced in the early 90s as part of Warp Records' breakout 'IDM' roster, finding favour with the techno-attuned indie crowd next to fellow pioneers Boards of Canada and The Aphex Twin. Unlike these enigmatic contemporaries, Autechre haven't missed an opportunity to iterate and evolve their sound. The 2000s saw a steady stream of studio material exploring deconstructed hip-hop, pointillistic techno, and murky ambient at various points. 
Forging ahead into the digital age, the group would only become more prolific, making a gradual shift away from physical equipment across projects spanning two, four, and then eight hours respectively. Autechre's current form remains heavily indebted to the mind-bending visual programming language MAX/MSP. Software which has effectively, over many years, adopted Rob and Sean's combined improvisational preferences: allowing them to sample gear, build custom instruments, and plug it all into a machine that does the jamming for them.

What results is the unbridled capacity to create, something that's intimidated even the most hardcore synth-wizards I know. Dive into MELBOURNE and you're immediately submerged by layers of space-age sound synthesis. Melodic and rhythmic patterns burble along intertwined, punctuating drones lend uncertain harmony as they screech toward abrasion. After twenty minutes of set dressing we're greeted by something tangible, radically transformed versions of shimripl casual and column thirteen from 2018's NTS 4. Both originally appeared as twenty-plus minute sci-fi ambient cuts, but resurface sporting intricate dancefloor percussion to match the ethereal chordplay.

It's hard not to draw comparisons to jazz here, each tour's set list is roughly the same but no two shows are alike. Coltrane's legendary take on My Favourite Things was a concert staple up until his death, eventually morphing into thirty minute free-noise outbursts with vague allusions to the original melody. Autechre operate in a similar space, presenting a post-improvisational ouvre where patch tweaking and variable manipulation replace the sonic groupthink of a live band. Skip through chronologically and you'll hear them developing tracks on the fly, later combing through iterations to curate a studio version. The actual noises might be AI-generated but Rob and Sean's pesky human fingerprints coat each and every part of their sound.

As MELBOURNE progresses the veil over Autechre's dance music roots is lifted. At fifty-five minutes we're treated to a jaw-clenching bassline and descending chords distilled from the DNA of acid techno. This particular track sticks in my mind from the Hobart show as it exploded into a breakbeat finale, but not so much here. The duo dwell on this interplay as it ramps in intensity to reveal cascading countermelodies and a chasm of lush sound design, eschewing percussion for grimace-inducing tension. The set closes with skull piercing church organ, punctuating dramatic 13th chords with negative space and a whiplashed tesla coil as the final blow.

Autechre are effectively a reviewer's nightmare, to deconstruct their influence would be to give a comprehensive rundown of experimental dance music since its inception. Three decades at the forefront of experimental electronic have rendered them without contemporaries, in a league of their own. An ever-shifting mass of sonic synthesis whose roots are eclipsed by a lifetime of relentless innovation.

So I'll say this: don't worry about context, completionism, or comprehension. If you're curious about what went down at the Croxton on June 21st, give MELBOURNE a try. I guarantee it's like nothing you've ever heard. 

I chose to review the Melbourne show because it was most similar to my experience in Hobart, but DUBLIN_150708 reaches even greater heights. If you only listen to one set I'd choose Dublin over this. 


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