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Music Review: Autechre – Incunabula

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Still cited as the alma mater for modern electronica, the Artificial Intelligence series was the Warp label’s kiss off to the landscape it had helped shape. Although it did little for its creators bank accounts – it was hardly likely by definition to catapult the artists responsible into the charts as had happened to a number of their faddish acid house acts – the series of landmark releases in 1992-93 formed a controlled sequence of remarkable quality.

It also defied easy categorization, the eponymous first outing being a compilation whose sleeve notes had described the contents as “Electronic listening music”, a descriptor which would be mistaken as a mission statement and that subsequently would give rise to the awkward handle “Intelligent Dance Music”. Despite Warp bosses Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett’s disgust at the the popularisation of the latter term – press releases attempting to debug the origination were released – their actions fell between genuine admonishment and exploiting the chance to guerrilla market on which their organisation’s image and reputation had been built.

Sean Booth and Rob Brown (AKA Autechre) had originally connected with each other in Manchester in the early 90’s over a shared love of old techno and hip hop. After Warp rejected their original submissions, they continued to cultivate a following on pirate radio and operate as part of the nebulous Gescom collective. Their perseverance – and a gradual movement towards a less hardcore orientated sound – eventually paid off, although at a price. After continuing to send tapes for the ensuing two years, a sudden agreement to commission a release left them forced to admit later that Incunabula was in effect a collection of their postcards as opposed to a definitively original work. This conjecture remained something of a floor show however, for it is indisputably the defining work in the series, built with both finesse and dogma, and a world away from the elevator music cliches the genre had snidely been pastiched as.

Why? because Incunabula succeeds by being three things; human, symbiotic and profound. Human because it has a pronounced emotional range; for example the cascading timbres of closer “444” are poignant, generating feelings of both contentment and regret within it’s skittering counter melodies and lush frequency. Its symbiosis comes from the source material, patching technology with a rarefied human insight into noise architecture. Both “Kalpol Intro” and its successor “Bike” have a capacity to breathe, to move in ways which machines cannot specify. This is not music defined by software and processors, it is organically charged, a freak of future nature.

Finally, it is body of work that is profoundly focussed, with a sense of unitary, wordless purpose that stems both from austerity and minimalism. Take “Basscadet”, the only track to feature a human voice, processed and constrained, wracked with confusion and resignation whilst all around post modern bells of some next dimension church ring, sounding like metal rain falling on alloy trees. Here too was the music we recognised from our stilted twentieth century, “Lowride” opening with the kind of mesmerising laconic piano roll which a bionic Miles Davis might float into cyberspace. Only “Windwind” displays any obvious anchor points in history, plaintively ruminating on Kraftwerk’s essence.

Hindsight has evidenced that Booth and Brown would refuse to let Incunabula be a career sarcophagus. The generation they signposted still see them as visionaries.

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