Autechre: EPs 1991-2002

Though the more cynically inclined might see the EPs 1991-2002 release (available as a forty-seven-track digital bundle and as a five-CD set) as an easy way for Warp to squeeze some extra mileage out of the Autechre catalogue, there's no discounting the quality of the material on offer. The release totals more than five hours of music, and it hardly needs be said that pretty much all of it is essential in one way or another. It would be no exaggeration to state that the set all by itself could function as an educational primer on what eventually will be regarded as a key period in the history of electronic dance music, given the analog-to-digital transition that occurred within it. The collection documents every stage in Autechre's evolution during the decade-long period, from the hardcore rave tracks that announced the group's arrival on the scene to the incremental increase in abstraction that seemed to characterize each successive release.

It boggles the mind to think that the two slamming acid-rave attacks on 1991's Cavity Job EP (issued, in fact, on Hardcore Records prior to the group's tenure with Warp began) could possibly come from the same act that would end up producing Gantz Graf just over a decade later. Three years on from that initial outing, however, the Basscad EP (wherein the group spins remix variations on “Basscadet” from 1993's Incunabula) already sees Booth and Brown finding their more experimental footing, distancing themselves from the competition through the boldness of their conception and unwavering commitment to a shared vision. The tracks aren't full-on plunges into abstraction, as the breakbeats and loping funk rhythms rolling respectively through “Basscadet (Basscadoublemx)” and “Basscadet (Tazmx)” reveal (the latter even featuring turntable scratching and even—wait for it—strings and congas), yet the boundary-pushing sensibility is definitely present and not just in embryonic form.

Though Autechre's releases have generally sidestepped extra-musical associations, one exception emerged in 1994 in the form of Anti, which the group issued as a form of protest against an anti-rave clause included in the UK Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that rendered repetitive beat-based music illegal in crowd settings. Not only does “Lost” fervently embrace repetition in its beat structure, it also acts as a template of sorts for a number of Autechre tracks, given the way it overlays future-funk rhythms with simple yet emotionally affecting melodic themes. By shape-shifting constantly, “Flutter” not only cleverly evaded the anti-rave clause but anticipated the frenetic style fellow producers would pursue in their own hyperactive tracks, jungle or otherwise.

1995 sees the Garbage EP bringing dub production treatments into the group's sound (“Garbagemx36”), broadening out even more the material's increasingly daring breakbeat patterns, while “VLetrmx21” shows a deft talent for symphonic ambient design. The latter piece notwithstanding, the arrangements are, during this Tri Repetae - Chiastic Slide period, becoming dizzyingly dense, with machines blissfully operating independently of one another yet in seeming synchronicity too. Yet despite such complexity, coherence still reigns, as shown by the hard-hitting throwdowns (“Second Bad Vilbel”) and skittering workouts (“Second Scepe,” “Second Peng”) captured on Anvil Vapre. Envane's “Goz Quarter” and “Latent Quarter” document the group's deft, mid-‘90s weaving of hip-hop and funk into its mechanoid universe (in this enlarged context, the turntable scratching in “Goz Quarter” reads like an affectionate backward glance at Basscad).

Recorded in the group's studio, the two Peel Sessions EPs also appear, the first aired in 1995 (issued in 1999) and the second in 1999 and released two years later. While credible enough when broached on its own terms (“Drane” in particular), the first session's tracks don't advance Autechre's sound in radically new ways but more consolidate it. The second one, on the other hand, introduces some fresh twists: the melodic charm of “Gelk,” for example, comes as a bit of a surprise, while the convulsive boom-bap (“Blifil”) and insectoid squiggle (“Gaekwad,” “19 Headaches”) heard elsewhere offer interesting contrasts.

1997's Cichlisuite appeared in between Chiastic Slide and LP5 and frankly sounds like it when the music increasingly dissolves strict adherence to rigid bar structures and metronomic tempo (the refreshingly downtempo “Krib” an exception). At the same time, tracks such as “Pencha” and “Characi” retain an intricate sound design that could belong to no one else but Autechre. 1998's EP7 is here in its entirety (except for the hidden, untitled track that precedes the opening track “Rpeg” on the formal release) but its seventy-minute total makes it feel more like a full-length than EP and thus a somewhat anomalous part within the whole. Even so, there's no denying how incredible much of it sounds, with mind-altering tracks like “Ccec,” “Squeller,” and “Maphive6.1” even more genre-advancing than the group's standard material. As listeners familiar with Autechre's history know all too well, EP7 is also noteworthy for signifying the moment before the group took its most extreme plunge into abstraction with the 2001 release of Confield. That less accessible stage is represented in the form of 2002's Gantz Graf, which ends the EP set in somewhat alienating fashion. The title tracks writhes in anguished manner, as if struggling to release itself from some suffocating stranglehold, but relief thankfully arrives in the form of the more straightforward “Dial.” before “Cap.IV” again pulls us into a disorienting swirl of abstraction.

Aside from being a collection that overwhelms on grounds of sheer enormity (consider too that the collection doesn't take into account any of Autechre's full-length releases), EPs 1991-2002 reminds us of a number things, one being the remarkable run this long-standing act has had and the equally astonishing contribution Sean Booth and Rob Brown have made to electronic music, and the other how rapid the group's evolution was as its music mutated throughout the years. And that the two are still with us and pushing ever-forward is remarkable in itself, considering how many of their brethren have gradually fallen by the wayside.

May 2011