AUTECHRE: INCUNABULA (1993)
1) Kalpol Introl; 2) Bike; 3) Autriche; 4) Bronchus 2; 5) Basscadet; 6) Eggshell; 7) Doctrine; 8) Maetl; 9) Windwind; 10) Lowride; 11) 444.
Welcome to the world of Rob Brown and Sean Booth, two adventurous Mancunians that, in the late 1980s, joined the sturdy Mancunian army of Electronic Dancing Soldiers, and quickly advanced to the rank of generals, pushing borders, expanding limits, setting records, and pulverizing stereotypes. They call themselves Autechre and no one has learned yet how to pronounce that properly, but that is not the biggest problem about reviewing their output.
The biggest problem is that I have always hated «technical» descriptions of electronic music albums targeted at the general (that is, not really techno-savvy) public. What do phrases like "a sharp blend of minimal but effective beats and bass combined with a variety of keyboard textures and understated melodies" (from the All-Music Guide review of Incunabula) really tell you about ʽKalpol Introlʼ or any other track on the album? Millions of electronic tracks have «minimal beats» (whether they are «effective» or not depends, of course, on your subjective judgement), and most of them are combined with a «variety of keyboard textures» (unless there is just one keyboard texture, in which case the whole track is minimalist); and what does «understated melodies» really mean? If you put three muffled synth notes deep in the background and loop them to infinity, is that an «understated melody»? Or a waste of prepaid studio time?
The fact is, in a world oversaturated several times over with electronic music, it is simply impossible, at least for somebody whose main (if not only) area of expertise is electronic music, to tell what really makes the sonic world of Autechre, or, more specifically, the sonic world of Autechre's early efforts, stand out from the rest. Especially time has done these guys a great disservice — in 1993, these techno experiments were still relatively fresh and curious, but today they have pretty much dissolved in a sea of similar-sounding experiments, or so it seems.
So it's probably best, when writing about Incunabula, to just toss out the context and try to judge it on... no, not on its own terms, which are unclear, but rather on a subjective answer to the question: «Is there a self-sufficient, autonomous little universe in here, or is this just a bunch of technophile bleeps, whooshes, and beats?»
Let's begin by mentioning that Autechre are sometimes associated with IDM («Intelligent Dance Music»), yet, although there are plenty of rhythmic, danceable beats on Incunabula, it can hardly qualify as typical club music. For that purpose, it would at least need to be louder, not quite as icy cold, and focused more on the beats. Instead, Autechre create an ambience that essentially sounds like Brian Eno crossed with industrial music — stern minimalistic chord sequences and patterns locked in metallic cages of clanging, banging, puffing, huffing, bursting, and exploding.
The actual chord sequences range from dark and foreboding (ʽAutricheʼ) to sprinkly-fussy (ʽBikeʼ) to emotionless-robotic (ʽBasscadetʼ) to a mixture of mystery-and-beauty (ʽEggshellʼ) to nearly epic minimalist-symphony parts (ʽWindwindʼ, which sort of overstays its welcome at over eleven minutes, but then there are no time rules when it comes to any kinds of ambient music, right?): maybe the best thing that can be mentioned is that no two tracks produce a completely identical emotional effect (provided one feels any emotional effect at all from such music).
People sometimes point out the lack of integrity and coherence, deducing this from knowing that Incunabula was really a compilation of stuff that the duo recorded over several years. But I think that the album is quite coherent — yes, it might have used a more effective closer than ʽ444ʼ, which neither contains the most solid «hooks» on the album nor creates any super-epic panorama to let the curtains fall in a grand manner. But other than that, my overall characteristics of the sound of the album applies to all of its tracks, and they do form a single impressive entity — like walking through some large underground sci-fi factory, dazzling the viewer with its white, clinical sterility and yet at the same time pumping out hi-tech product for world domination.
Like many other electronic albums, it takes full advantage of CD size, clocking in at over seventy eight minutes, although, predictably, most of the compositions fully state their point by the time they reach one-third of their actual length — chalk that up to club requirements and feel free to trim them down with your own scissors, if you wish, but that's the basic paradox of ambient: the fewer notes you play, the longer you have to make your composition last. The major question is — how about that universe, is it there, in place, or is it not? And if it is, can you give it a name? Well, how about «ice factory»? And a frozen thumbs up?
Check "Incunabula" (MP3) on Amazon