Monday, January 14, 2013

Day Fourteen: Autechre - Gantz_Graf

Warp Records ■ WAP 256

Released: August 6, 2002

Produced by Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown)

Side a:
  1. Gantz Graf
  2. Dial.
Side e:
  1. Cap.IV
While my love for the work of Aphex Twin is well-known enough that more than a few people remember checking him out solely on my recommendation, I can't really pretend I know as much about electronic music as that kind of weight might indicate. Insofar as the more modern incarnations, I've stuck almost exclusively to about four artists, with smatterings of others occupying my collection over the years (2 Lone Swordsmen, Flunk, Lemon Jelly, Burial, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, BT, Terminal Sound System, TRS-80) and haven't ever been serious (or at least accurate) in claiming anything like knowledge. Now, that aside, when it comes to Aphex Twin (and AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, and his billion other pseudonyms), Autechre, Squarepusher and µ-Ziq, I tend to have something to say. They each occupy overlapping but distinct corners of the "intelligent dance music" (though I'm inclined to agree with Mr. James that that name is stupid and pretentious--with no other takers, I shruggingly accept his nomenclature of "braindance", as it also seems pretty accurate) and so I've followed each semi-consistently. RDJ in all his various identities occupies the greatest part of my collection (both physical and digital, and in physical both vinyl and CD), with Squarepusher coming in a close second, µ-Ziq at a strong third and Autechre at a semi-distant fourth.

Aphex's work is the most intensely varied, as he has seemingly gotten bored with or distracted from various sounds--his interviews, despite being generally rather opaque and often obtuse, give an idea of the sort of collective identity of his work. When he talks about smelling the grooves of vinyl, or getting a "hoof mod" for the goat he uses to help compose and record, the idea that he's taking the piss is not really difficult to grasp. But once in a while he'll also be free and clear, as when he expressed his opinion of the "IDM" name, or when he made the mistake of giving his perfectly relaxed opinion of Radiohead.¹ Squarepusher, by contrast, has stayed a bit more in the background, and is almost defined by the live element of his sound: he's an amazing bass player, and often layers his playing over the electronic sounds he puts together. µ-Ziq has the most accessible sound, treading into experimental territory far less often, and building around and relying on melodies more often than the rest.

Autechre, however, I've always seen as somewhat nebulous: the immediate feeling I always get from them is that of the most inhuman sound. This doesn't seem to be an unfair feeling--the first video Chris Cunningham directed was for the band (their song "Second Bad Vilbel", from the Anvil Vapre EP) and the most abstract one he has released in a career that became defined by his Aphex Twin videos (which contain characters, plots, and human figures). The video released for "Gantz Graf" is also incredibly abstract and, like much of their cover art, is focused on geometry and straight lines. Only Oversteps from 2010 has cover art with any sense of chaos--but it's still controlled: a painted circle with messy outline, but a pretty accurate circle in spite of that method. The fact that they've made releases like LP5 and Tri Repetae only makes things worse: the actual external art for the latter is devoid of any markings whatsoever once unwrapped, and the former only says "autechre" and "ae" on it, both embossed into the packaging itself. Indeed, LP5's CD formatting has no indicators at all of which side is which, though the LP does have track listings. Even Amber, the only release with a natural photographic cover, chooses an unblemished rock formation in Turkey, one that still hints at pre-conceived, naturally defined elements.

This is a bit of a contradiction, I realize. Machinery and natural lines are somewhat inappropriate to group: one is decided by millennia of reactions to the elements, one is manufactured by man-made hands. But there's still something in common with both: neither resembles mankind. Even if a human engineers, designs, manufactures and assembles a machine, the end result is unlike man, while nature's inorganic elements--another shared feature--don't resemble the curves, flexibility, and softness of humanity. This always seems appropriate in light of their work. While it is definitively designed by human hands, it is designed in a fashion that leaves it more in mind of manufacture than impulse, even as it still maintains the sense of design and intention.

Gantz Graf is not, by any means, an exception to this. Many of their albums edge more toward the Aphex or µ-Ziq side of electronic music, with some drifting toward ambient, some toward the melodic and catchy side of things and tempos varying, but more accessible elements tend to be a commonality. Gantz Graf is the kind of work people call "challenging" or "experimental" or "difficult", and with reason. The title track opens the EP with controlled chaos: it reminds me, in some ways, of some of the "jokes" of RDJ (like aka "Formula"/"Equation" or "Bonus High Frequency Sounds") but being less abrasively constructed. It sounds as if the song can't find its sound or footing as it starts, with various contrasting mechanical sounds bouncing off each other only to come back together for brief moments, no clear tempo established, but a clear sense of pattern that prevents it from being simply random. It slowly morphs and mutates, as if being restricted or attempting to correct itself, spikes of sound splintering and jumping off it like sparks as it is wound and tightened back in on itself. It's like the energy of a machine designed to move forward but held in place: it unthinkingly spins tires or works legs, expending great energy, but unable to actually move.

"Dial." follows and closes the first side (marked only by the "a" of their condensed logo) and is more easily followed. The glitch-y (in the sense of both the immediate understanding of "glitch" and the subgenre of electronic that orients itself around that kind of auditory glitch) beat is backed by a wild-eyed, constantly ascending semi-melody, as if the song is climbing stairs and appears to be reaching a top that only becomes the next flight. There's only a mild dissonance, as the sounds chosen for the notes are half-flat and squashed into strange shapes. A vocal sample is distorted enough to be effectively unrecognizable, and this and other elements become the portions designed to move the song forward and create something new, as the beat and the "stairclimb" loop to propel it forward into those new spaces. Squeaks and bleeps, buzzes and hums float in and out, as if running up those same stairs at different speeds but finding their floors on occasion.

The second side (marked by the stylized "e" in the photo I included, which actually also has the vertical line of the "a", but of course on the left side instead) consists entirely of one track: "Cap.IV". By itself, it's almost as long as the other two tracks, though it doesn't lift the entire release to even a 20 minute running time. It shares the distorted variety of vocal samples that "Dial." contained, though even more filtered and obscured (reminding me of the "Mashed potatoes? Why do you hate mashed potatoes?" sample from Aphex's "Every Day", and proving how limited my frame of reference is). It uses a beat based around a heavily chopped and higher-pitched hit, one that is occasionally blurred into a seeming stream of hits, while an actual melody--though ethereal, as always for Autechre--does occupy the background, between that vocal sample and the beat. The beat maintains its dominance though, with wiry energy and the feeling that it cannot sit still for more than a moment--if that. Eventually, the beat seems to feel it has not yet achieved total dominance and begins to blur and strike more and more often, overtaking all the rest of the track until it's nothing but a blur of constant vibration and gyration overtaking everything else.

While Autechre can occasionally have warmer, softer, curvier inorganic sounds (on Amber and Quaristice, for example), this is a very angular and remote release. The video for "Gantz Graf" itself is definitive, indicative of the kind of inhuman sound that is signature, and also semi-impenetrable, even as you can recognize its perfect match to the beats and sounds of the track itself.

I do wish I had a bit more electronic on vinyl, and, indeed, that I had something by Autechre other than a single EP (as I've noted before, EPs are not my preference here, but it's the only thing I have by Autechre at all). I've meant for ages to expand my knowledge of electronic music, but considering it can be assembled (even if poorly, as I've done myself a few times, though never been stupid or shameless enough to distribute) by anyone, technically, it makes it difficult to know who or where to go--and the sheer variety of subgenres, which I generally can't tell apart, even if I try, most definitely doesn't help either.

Still, this is a solid release, and, while "difficult", never gives me the impression that it crosses into the realms of the kind of pretension and "experimentation" that I find, ahem, difficult to take seriously or as anything other than an attempt to "prove" intelligence or complexity. Autechre are often reckoned as the smarty-pants side of the "IDM/Braindance" stuff, and it doesn't seem unfair, but maybe it just comes down to how difficult it is to find humanity in the sounds they construct, which sound more like a machine might have constructed them, even as the overarching sense is a clear awareness that it was two humans.

Next Up: Bad Brains - ?

¹The oh-so-controversial statement was "I wouldn't play with them since I don't like them." and inspired a legion of backlash from Radiohead fans, followed by a reactionary backlash from Aphex fans. It was all very stupid.
He did later elaborate with more inflammatory (but still not messianic, Final Arbitration-type comments):

"I don’t like them. I heard maybe five or six tracks and I thought they sounded really really cheesy."
"Yeah, really obvious and cheesy. I mean I’m just comparing it to my favourite music and I think it’s terrible compared to that. But compared to all the shit boring R&B tracks it’s probably alright. Compared to those teen punk sort of bands or whatever they are supposed to be called, who think that they are really anarchic and stuff like that, they are probably amazing. If you’re only exposed to that kind of stuff and then Radiohead come along you will probably think that they are geniuses."
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