Autechre – Amber (1994)

At no point in a career spanning more than three decades, have Autechre wavered from their singular and uncompromising musical vision. Like an army of AI, the sound of which their music so often seems to emulate, they’ve marched on relentlessly, continuously pushing forward, constantly evolving and developing, always striving to change yet always sounding unmistakably like Autechre and no one else. 

One might even be forgiven for thinking that Rob Brown and Sean Booth are in fact robots, never have they let the mask slip. You could argue that their label mates and peers in the electronic music pantheon – Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Plaid – all inject an element of playfulness into their music at some point or another. But Autechre have never cracked a smile, never winked to the camera. Instead, they’ve remained committed to a cerebral style of music that instills a sense of awe, wonder and maybe just a hint of fear.

Rob Brown & Sean Booth, aka Autechre

Their run of albums from 1993’s Incunabula to Confield at the start of the next decade is virtually unmatched in electronic music and was more than enough to cement the Rochdale duo’s status as ‘legends’. During this time however, as the technology they were using developed and their sound evolved along with it, it seems they changed perspective. Autechre’s music continued to inspire reverence at the might of machine power, but rather than using melody and panoramic soundscapes to evoke the majesty of the industrial age, they instead switched focus down to the nanoworld of AI, as depicted by the sheer alienness and incomprehensibility of the sounds the were generating.

In one sense there’s nothing more human than a machine; humans are the only creatures that make machines and every machine is the embodiment of some human intention or desire. But of course in another sense, machines are the antithesis to humanity: cold, rigorous, unchanging and rigid. And of those machines that can be said to possess some form of intelligence, although it’s usually described as ‘artificial intelligence’, it feels more like alien intelligence – unpredictable, inscrutable and unknowable.

On later albums, Autechre’s music would come to embody that coldly alien machine intelligence, attempting to inhabit the perspective of entities that have no interior life. But on Amber, the perspective remains firmly ‘on the outside’. It’s a boldy ambitious album, to do justice to the towering edifices of human technology, images of which the music evokes, and which will probably remain long after the last living human has perished. 

Perhaps the best example of this is Silverside – silver being the colour of machines and robots as depicted in classic science fiction – a track which encapsulates that sense of witnessing something far more powerful than yourself. This was a common theme in 20th century science fiction, expressing the anxiety humans were feeling in response to rapacious technological development. The proliferation of motorcars, homes that became filled with electrical appliances, the dream of supersonic air travel, rivalry between superpowers played out as the space race, the advent of home computers, the spectre of nuclear war. It was unclear whether we were going to find salvation in a utopia where machines they took care of all the work, or if ultimately they would overwhelm and destroy us.

I’ve always found the term IDM (‘intelligent dance music’) to be one of the most facile and inaccurate genre labels. The generally accepted origin story, that it was a mutated form of dance music intended for listening at home after a night out raving to (less intelligent?) house, techno or electro is no doubt a massive oversimplification. One that ignores the much wider range of influences – ambient, world music, dub, hip-hop, classical music – that were at play. (Never mind the bogus implication that other forms of dance music are somehow ‘less intelligent’).

In Autechre’s case however, it’s easy to see why the term was applied and has remained a persistent label. Amber finds the duo at a very early point on their journey but already dedicated to an unashamedly serious and ambitious approach. But if any genre could lay claim to being the original ‘intelligent’ dance music, it would surely be techno – inherently futuristic and explicitly associated with science and of course, techno-logy. Coming out of Detroit – a city emblematic of technology’s potential for prosperity as well as its destructive power – techno’s repetitive beats and industrial atmosphere mimicked the factory production lines of the automotive industry. A style of music that reflected the dehumanisation of employees who became mere cogs in a giant machine.

This is somewhat of a simplification of course, as techno was born out of many disparate influences. And much of classic Detroit Techno is recognisable for being deeply soulful, more in debt to jazz and funk than the robotic rhythms of Kraftwerk.

But this tension between man and machine – the existential anxiety induced by technology – is one of the key influences present throughout Amber. Opening track, Foil sets the pace and tone to come with its metronomic rhythm and ominous droning bassline. Although it’s been slowed to a stately pace, the simple two-note pattern that repeats throughout following track, Montreal, could’ve been directly transplanted from a Detroit Techno track. The percussive elements all sound like industrial components – cogs and ratchets turning inside some vast autonomous machine. But this whirring claustrophobic atmosphere gradually gives way to a delicate melody and airy pads that rise in the background and subtly take over. After 12 minutes of music that’s all hard edges and cold surfaces, it feels like the first glimpse of wider surroundings – like stepping out from a long night shift in a dark factory into a beautiful sunrise.

And later, the pulsing metallic clangs of ‘Nine’ always make me visualise standing at clifftop vantage point observing some kind of huge industrial structure – a refinery, chemical works or desalination plant. Something with a maze of pipework, towering chimneys or cooling towers, maybe a cavernous domed silo. A product of human engineers and builders but once up and running, requiring very little human presence to function. Following this, Further combines a sombre vibe and steady robotic beat with a pitter-patter sound like water-dripping, calling to mind a dark industrial labyrinth full of pipes, shafts and vents – the kind of environment frequently depicted in sci-fi films and computer games of the 1980s and 90s. 

All this is not to say that Amber is devoid of human emotion – far from it. All throughout, Brown and Booth temper their austere tendencies with extended passages of melodic beauty. It’s hard to say ultimately whether Amber is an optimistic album, taking a positive view humankind’s relationship with technology. Most science fiction ages rapidly, as technological developments outpace those imagined by the authors (though usually never in ways they could’ve predicted). And listening to Amber now, it certainly sounds of its time – occupied as it is with distinctly 20th century anxieties.

A few years later in Autechre’s musical development, around 1999 to be precise, the machines did overwhelm their human creators. LP5, although only separated from Amber by four years, is a seismic jump away in musical evolution. The whole fibre of its DNA is different – it moves in different ways, runs on a different operating system. It bares the odd trace of human fingerprints, which by the time of the transition to Confield in 2001, have all but evaporated. Confield is an impressive and formidable album but it’s a much harder listen than Amber, or any of their music up to that point, in that it feels completely devoid of any human emotion. 

Autechre – Bine (Confield 2001)

If Amber is Autechre at their most expansive – painting huge sweeping scenes on a large canvas – Confield is completely dimensionless. Laser-focused on the nano-environment of the microchip and circuit board, dazzling in its complexity but ultimately inscrutable. This transition from macro to micro can be heard in each successive release in Autechre’s late 1990s discography, each of which will have to wait for another post.

In the meantime, all that remains is for me to encourage you to immerse yourself in Amber, an early masterpiece from one of electronic music’s most influential and singular acts.

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