At the risk of seeming flip, I will venture to say that at this point you probably know where you stand on Autechre’s newest album before you hear so much as a single beat. Nothing else quite sounds like Autechre. There’s no mistaking them for any of their peers in acts like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, because for all the inhuman fury of those artists’ frantic contortions there is still a very human core at the heart of almost everything they do. Autechre, however, are unique among almost all music of any kind in that they strive to eliminate all elements of human emotion, indeed, all elements of human presence, from their work. At their best, Autechre create the kind of pristine music you imagine computers would make if computers had any need for music: hermetically sealed and permeated with a frighteningly foreign intelligence.
Untilted is an excellent disc, unremarkable only in terms of the fact that Autechre have rarely released anything which falls short of their demanding standards. There is no discernable difference between the music on this disc and the music on 2003’s Draft 7.30 — and while their sound has definitely evolved and advanced since their formative years in the post-acid days of Warp’s ground-breaking Artificial Intelligence series, they seem to have achieved something of a plateau. It would be difficult, in other words, for their music to become more recognizably Autechre without converting the soundwaves to inaudible electrical impulses.
If there are any significant differences between Untilted and their most recent work on Draft 7.30 and 2002’s Gantz Graf EP, it would be a slightly more pronounced obeisance to the constraints of rhythmical pattern. Whereas much of their most recent material has flaunted a studied indifference to even the rudiments of consistent rhythm — often establishing a regular beat for only a handful of measures before utterly demolishing it over the course of a six- or eight-minute long track — the material on Untilted seems more willing to allow the listener the relative relief of a consistent beat. It may be in 8/4 or something similarly baroque, but it’s there.
Some refer to this kind of music as “challenging” or “alienating”, but I find it exciting on a very visceral level. Pop music is great but a steady diet has the tendency to atrophy the critical faculties of even the most discerning listener. This isn’t pop. This is as complex, creative and invigorating as anything else being recorded today in any genre. There is a degree of work involved in acclimating one’s self to the extremely heady altitude at which Autechre dwell, but it is trivial compared to the serious delights that await the conscientious listener.
It’s almost besides the point to attempt to describe Autechre’s sound to any degree of specificity. The album opens with “LCC”, which begins with a sound somewhere between rusted sheet metal being hit with a baseball bat and exploding firecrackers. The comparatively simple rhythm is gradually expanded to include progressively elaborate mutant snare and high-hat patterns. The rhythm is beaten down and broken up into its respective parts; there are loping, dissonant trip-hop interludes; there are oddly disconcerting synthesizer notes looming in the background. Seven and a half minutes after it begins it recedes into a fog of digital squelches and bleeps. Wait a second and the process begins over again with “Ipacial Section”: a frantic rhythm is established, different elements are introduced, strange interludes become dominant refrains. Eventually the song ends, sounding much different than it did to begin with but still like nothing else. The elaborately-constructed structures make every track a complete universe in and of itself, with exquisitely designed themes, counter-themes and movements. It may seem random at first, but there is always an integral logic at work. Finding it is half the fun.
Song titles are typicially useless in the world of IDM, and Autechre are no exception to this rule. Anyone looking over the track listing might be fooled by the presence of a track called “The Trees”, simple among such heady labels as “Pro Radii” and “Iera”, but really, this track has no more to do with any kind of peaceful arboreal scene than the rest of the album: it begins with frantic percussion and evolves to dizzyingly complex heights before dissolving into static. “Sublimit” finishes the album in high style, including an odd Bizarro homage to old-school electro and a barrage of noises that sound like nothing so much as Pac-Man being tortured like a political prisoner. It lasts over fifteen minutes but it never seems to wear out its welcome.
Some people get their jollies by poring over the lyric sheets of their favorite singer-songwriter’s latest release, or collecting all the multiple mix-tape appearances of their favorite underground MCs — me, I listen to albums like Untilted over and over again until the chaos starts to make sense. It’s scary and odd, just two steps away from white noise and absolute disaster at any given second, but it is also the smartest and most commanding music currently being released by almost anyone, anywhere. There’s not a lot here to grab onto unless you’re willing to immerse yourself in a world of totally alien sensation. If you are willing to accept the challenge, there is a chance you will find yourself significantly changed by the experience.