AUTECHRE: CONFIELD (2001)
1) VI Scose Poise; 2) Cfern; 3) Pen Expers; 4) Sim Gishel; 5) Parhelic Triangle; 6) Bine; 7) Eidetic Casein; 8) Uviol; 9) Lentic Catachresis.
«An album, to respect, not to enjoy», quoth the All-Music Guide. Well, according to my personal philosophy, Autechre is altogether an artistic unit to respect rather than enjoy — remembering this all the time helps me warm up to their output like nothing else. And Confield is nothing but an expectable, if not to say predictable, apex of this «respectability»: after spending years on making music that seemed to be generated by artificial intelligence, Booth and Brown finally put out an album that actually was generated by artificial intelligence.
Well, sort of, that is. In preparing Confield, the robotic duo relied heavily on Max software, with the basis for most tracks electronically generated from input clues. This does not mean that the input clues were completely random, or that the results did not undergo heavy selection and were not seriously doctored, pampered, and trussed up before release. But overall, this is, indeed, as close as Autechre ever got to letting the machines take over; and this time, even the heroes had to admit that, perhaps, this music was not quite suitable for a club environment.
Do the results bode well for a new age of machine-generated music? Well... supposedly we still need time to understand that, even now that a whole decade has elapsed since Confield made the headlines. The machines certainly prefer percussive sound waves to playing with tones and the pitches, that is for certain; and oh the variety! ʽVI Scose Poiseʼ sounds like a spinning top launched in the bottom of a metal tub, travelling all over the perimeter at varying angles and speeds. ʽCfernʼ is a spike-heeled mosquito tap-dancing atop a malfunctioning jackhammer. ʽPen Expersʼ is Commander Data rehearsing a Jackie Chan routine, receiving his instructions from a sped-up movie projection. ʽSim Gishelʼ is a Geiger counter on overload, and so on (there's only so many metaphoric descriptions one can generate for an Autechre review without overheating).
The tonal stuff is much less interesting, to be frank. There are actual notes on all the tracks, but on some of them they are barely noticeable (ʽPen Expersʼ), and most of the time, they represent rather unassuming minimalistic patterns that mainly act as ear tampons, or otherwise the percussion dynamo could eventually cause irreversible damage. «Music» gets a bit louder on ʽEidetic Caseinʼ, where discordant, chaotic, ominous cascades of violin-organ-esque notes competes for attention with the crackling rhythms on an almost equal basis. Everywhere else it simply provides a static background to the active pulsating life of the rhythms.
As a self-certified human being (I hope!), one of those billions of ultra-complex sets of machinery evolved over the past several billion years, I find it even harder to attune my senses to these waves than with any preceding Autechre record. I can survive, temporarily, on a bit of percussion if it's an actual, well-improvised drum solo, but for hour-long stretches of time I need more than that, no matter how weird or witty all the clicks, cracks, and clangs may be sounding. But as a particularly bold intellectual experiment, the meaning of Confield, I suppose, is just to set you a-thinking. For instance, how close — even if only by accident — could they have come to tapping into the emotional instincts of... err... insects? Or tapeworms? Or single-cellular organisms? Maybe, without knowing it, they have recreated some of the favorite dance tunes of Micronuclearia podoventralis, to name just one potentially grateful listener in my tummy. It might take us years, or ages, to find out, of course, but we'll get there eventually.
From this or any similar point of view, Confield is a delight. From most others, it is a nightmare, and even many of the critics halted in befuddlement before spitting out a rating and a judgement. My original instinct was to give in to hate and ramble about how people who do this should be dragged out into the square and publicly, and humiliatingly de-artistified. But, honestly, justifying this hatred requires a lengthy, elaborate philosophy of art and a lengthy, elaborate pamphlet on why we could only live happily ever after once we have all subscribed to that philosophy. To hell with it. I don't really like Confield, I don't hate Confield, I don't want to listen to any more Confield, but I do feel as if the actual experience extended some of the mind borders. Plus, I have serious doubts about the album ever making it onto the «golden masterpieces» shelf, but it could, in theory, point the way to something entirely different... coming up in about five hundred years or so. With an emotionally-driven thumbs down and an intellectually-fueled thumbs up cancelling out each other, welcome to the big question mark that is Autechre's most openly audacious, soul-challenging release ever.
Check "Confield" (MP3) on Amazon