Last Friday night I saw Autechre perform here in Sydney at the Forum. It was apparently their first show in Australia in almost 15 years, which is about how long ago I saw them at a Warp Records night at the Shelter in New York. That was a memorable gig. Mind you I was a bit of a snob about house and Detroit techno in those days, and didn’t have much time for more abstract, less melodic, less soulful stuff. I remember hanging at the back with my arms crossed, daring them to impress. But honestly the sounds emanating from the huge stacks amazed me. They played some of the strongest beats I’ve ever heard. (I’ve never been able to keep my mind closed for any length of time with music. If it’s real, it’s going to get through to me.) Since that time I’ve become a fan.

The Forum is located in the middle of a recreational complex in Moore Park called the Entertainment Quarter. I wasn’t too impressed with EQ. A little too zoned and sanitized for my taste, a theme park trying to imitate a happening part of town. Though it was nice walking along the park to get there.

The venue itself is very impressive however. It’s a round space with Roman motifs, as its name suggests, and multiple levels with lots of great views encircling the room. The decor is plush in a restrained new-school way; I couldn’t help but be impressed at the lustrous green masonry forming the men’s urinal. The sound in the middle of the circle is very good.

I was with Chris, an old high school friend of my wife’s. We had met each other over drinks some time back and found we had a lot in common, especially music. Good to link up with like minds so far away from my roots. We had plenty of time to chat as we had to wait a good while for the show. There were two warmup DJs; one played an eclectic set that included some choice bits of obscure electro-pop. The other, named Rob Hall, mixed a very long set of uptempo tech stuff that was dynamic but, for me, lacking in melody and color. And there was little dancing, which was disappointing but not surprising knowing Autechre’s clientele. But Chris and his friends were digging it and there was plenty of goodwill among the assembled crowd as they waited patiently. The great thing about being a music fan in Australia is that when big acts from the northern hemisphere show up, the punters don’t take it for granted. They’re into it. Being jaded doesn’t really work here.

Going in I had thought the crowd would be entirely made up of older nerds, techies, and retired ravers. And there were surely a lot of them assembled. There were many beards, many pairs of glasses, many bald spots and ironic t-shirts. If terrorists had wanted to devastate Sydney’s computer systems by targeting the people who program and maintain them, they might have chosen that gig to make their attack. But there were also quite a few younger people, many of them on the hip side, including some women. (Honestly, I didn’t think there’d be any women at all, so I was pleasantly taken aback.) Autechre’s music is not really “cool” as such; it’s far more elemental than that. So it was hard for me to pinpoint what some of these younger club kids might have thought they were getting into.

One attendee made himself very visible and provoked a lot of amused discussion between us: he was a young kid on the dancefloor, leaning off to one side, wearing a Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt and reading Schopenhauer. We couldn’t figure out how ironic he was trying to be. I decided it was an act of nerdy aggression. But I really have to hand it to him for his commitment and attention to detail.

If you’re like me, and you’re chuckling about this but really couldn’t provide even a brief summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, click here for the bullet points.

Autechre finally came on after midnight. As Chris wrote in a review on StrongLikeWater (his own blog — great name!), it’s hard to find words to describe their music. So I won’t try too hard. But it was very dense, very challenging stuff. Layers of incredibly broken beats forming and continually reforming into jagged shapes, never sustaining one pattern or tempo for very long; ferocious primal sub-bass; brutal shifting tones in place of melody. There were no lights of course. Just an inscrutable mountain of sound and the indicators on their machines. The overall effect was of being in the presence of something gigantic, invisible, barely comprehensible: an alien, an archangel, an artificial intelligence.

If you are not into Autechre, or maybe even if you are, it might have just sounded like noise. But that’s not quite right. I’ve always abhorred noise in music for its own sake. Autechre’s music is not noise. Actually it’s just the opposite: noise is sound that is confused, without a structure. But Autechre’s creations are very structured, indeed, sometimes (as on this night) made of nothing else but structure. They’re not posers making noise out of cynicism or a lack of talent; they’re craftsmen. Architects of sound. Famously many of their compositions are based on complex equations programmed into their machines. But lurking somewhere down (very far down) inside is an overriding love of music. It’s like a science-fiction version of free jazz.

That said, did I enjoy this show? Not so much. Waiting three hours with not a lot of musical inspiration beforehand had taken its toll; my back hurt from standing in one place and I’d had too much lager and not enough to eat. Confronted by the monolithic sound issuing from the darkened stage, I admit I shrank a bit — I even went to sit outside a couple of times. (Though I did enjoy how good the sound was out there; they’d made the club into one big speaker.)

Autechre’s been recording for eighteen years; there’s spare atmosphere and a rare kind of beauty in a lot of their music. Check out “Clipper” (from 1995), and “Altibzz” (2008). Was I was hoping for too much to hear a little more of that during the show — a little space to breathe, a little light? Does that make me less than hardcore?

But most of the fans were right there with it, rapt, nodding their heads, clapping and cheering at the few breakdowns in the whirling black cloud of sound. I really have to hand it to Autechre for finding a worldwide audience with the most difficult music.

The video is not from this show — it was shot on their home turf of Manchester three years ago — but it’s a pretty good representation of what they were doing here. The funny thing is, listening to this at home, it’s much more appealing to me. I can grasp the patterns, hear the traces of melody, and dig the beats a lot more. Autechre’ music rewards patience and repeated listens. The show was hard to tune into, but maybe it opened me up a bit more to what they’re doing. And their oblique recordings now sound light and melodic by comparison.

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