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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Autechre: NTS Session 4


1) frane casual; 2) mirrage; 3) column thirteen; 4) shimripl casual; 5) all end.

General verdict: Two hours of almost nothing seems like a pretty natural conclusion to eight hours of nearly something, but that does not prevent it from sucking on the gut level.

I suppose that even Autechre can get tired from a four-week residence at a radio station, because this is precisely what this final two-hour marathon sounds like — tired and out of breath. With but five tracks on it (and the fifth one quite a fraudulent one at that), the fourth volume offers nothing by way of new ideas, except serving as a dutiful wrap-up for all those who live on borrowed time and do not mind having it stretched like a nylon hose because they got nothing better to do anyway than to listen to a single sample looped for eternity.

So here is a quick runthrough. ʽFrane casualʼ is fourteen minutes spent staring at a conveyor belt that splurges out the same robotic part at regular intervals. ʽMirrageʼ is six minutes spent wading in the early morning through a sticky nebula of electronic fog that looks, smells, and feels exactly the same in any given direction. ʽColumn thirteenʼ is seventeen minutes spent stuck in an alien elevator, with the friendly repair technicians convinced, for some reason, that these seventeen minutes will be much better spent with the muzak remaining on rather than off. ʽShimripl casualʼ is twenty four minutes spent in a giant empty refrigerator, breathing in dry ice clouds and staring at all the complex sub-systems of blinking lights.

Finally, the magnum opus ʽall endʼ is one track which, I have to be honest, I finally did not have the patience to experience from top to bottom — or perhaps I did, but I might have fallen asleep near the beginning and woken up towards the end of its fifty-eight minute running length. Yes, that is right: the thing clocks in at 58:21, and you can get in, get out, get in again, get out again, get up, get down, get with it, and get under it at any single particular moment: most of the time it will just be an ocean of calm electronic noise, sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, sometimes with the waves hissing and foaming, sometimes with subtle undercurrents, but mostly about as consistent as any real ocean with a quiet, stable breeze blowing over it. Chill!

Now, actually, all of these things kind of make sense within the overall context of the NTS Sessions. Since the basic idea behind all of them is to have more or less the same fun that you do with Youtube videos when playing them at 0.25 speed, it makes all the more sense to give the fans a special two-hour long goodbye, just to make you properly savor and digest all the tiny microcell elements that constitute a goodbye. Therefore, as far as multi-part artistic gestures go, I have no problem with the album. But it goes without saying that getting it to properly «register» is equally hard on its own or as part of the entire 8-hour experience: where each of the previous sessions had at least occasional moments that could grab my attention, this one is background electronic muzak that makes a very good job at making you treat it as such. If there are actually people in this world that are not doing chores while the session is on, Jeff Lebowski promises to eat his heart out.

Concluding this entire sub-section, I must stress once again the surprise at all the glowing reviews of the NTS Sessions — not that there were many of them in the first place, since Autechre are long past the peak of their fame, but most of those that did come out spent their digital space gushing at the many wonders and thrills offered by the experience. Personally, I am just not convinced that a semi-improvised eight-hour session by an aging avantgarde electronic duo could be consistently wonderful and thrilling even theoretically — though the first volume, as I have already written, did offer a somewhat fresh and exciting take on the old formula. Perhaps it is all about the ambitiousness: people, sometimes unknowingly, are so hungry for monumental artistic feats these days that the mere introduction of a Gargantuan gesture like this one gets them all aroused. Or perhaps Autechre have simply mutated into that particular kind of dinosaur which only stimulate the aut bene, aut nihil principle when people write about them.

Regardless, I have to state that NTS Sessions are a partial success on the microlevel (there is still potential in the old formula) and a general failure on the macrolevel — not only is the eight hour length no longer an impressive feat of originality by itself (sure, the whole thing runs longer than The Disintegration Loops, but who really cares?), but I am afraid that the entire «less is more» principle has ambiently hummed its last ambient hum just as well. Other than a tiny bunch of niche fanatics, this kind of product is not likely to appeal to anybody, and what once used to be a feat of free thinking and artistic exploration has turned into a routine way of making a living. Maybe I am dead wrong, and maybe, as one particularly gushing reviewer wrote, "itʼs as if the preceding decades of work were acts of research leading to that point". But to my mind, thatʼs like saying the same about something like Tom Waitsʼ Bad As Me — a good record that shows tremendous professionalism and maturity, but does not tell us anything about Tom Waits and his badass attitudes that we have not already learned decades ago. And really, with Autechre it is even more confusing, because how exactly do you rate and assess an Autechre record if you do not use originality of approach as the single defining parameter? (The only way in which you could salvage something like Confield, with its obviously clear-cut departure from tradition that even the coarsest layman could observe). I have no answer here, and I doubt anybody has — certainly nobody, so far, who has ever written anything about them. 

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