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The 1993 appearance of Warp Records’ influential Artificial Intelligence compilation, arguably the biggest techno watershed of the last decade, signaled a shift away from the primacy of the dance floor toward increasingly intricate music intended as much for armchair entertainment as for rump-shaking. The album, and especially the early Autechre tracks included therein, democratized techno by including the unfunky and rave-shy masses. Realizing the genre’s potential for something beyond ephemeral soundtracks for azz-backin’ and druggin’, Autechre busied up techno’s beats and introduced pastoral art-rock melodies to often mind-boggling effect. Thus when AutechreBritons Sean Booth and Rob Browntook the lead among the unfortunately monikered Intelligent Dance Music set, it was because the duo’s contribution was as much a reconsideration of electronic music’s past as a ballsy progression into techno’s future. Clearly these blokes knew that Kraftwerk put records out before Autobahn.
Despite their love of crunchy, glitchy beat constructions, Booth and Brown never forgot the funk. They may have augmented their complex polyrhythms with synthesized melodies-upon-countermelodies worthy of Brian Eno and Cluster, but bumpin’ hiphop was always their music’s most crucial ingredient. Listening to the dense beats and twisted breakdown of Afrika Bambaataa’s recently reissued “Renegades of Funk” is like cracking a huge chunk of Autechre’s genetic code. And essential Autechre dispatches such as 1997’s Chiastic Slide and 1999’s EP7 were never so overtechnical that they lost that classic electro juice.
Yet after five full-lengths and an endless stream of EPs (not to mention the duo’s more straight-up-funky vinyl communications as Gescom), Autechre has produced an album that sounds, well, kind of inert. Swing may not be quantifiable, but it is most certainly lacking on the new Confield. From its aimless opening track, “Vi Scose Poise,” to its stiff closer, “Lentic Catachresis,” the disc consistently spins out of control, only rarely locking its teeth into a real groove or anything resembling a hook. Historically, Autechre’s best cuts have progressed through time, often evolving into a completely different animal by the end. On Confield, however, the band piles everything on from the get-go, front-loading its tracks with vague keyboard sounds and bloodless beats without moving them forward at all.
Confield is not completely barren, though. The heavily percussive “Pen Expers” taps into the robotically funky and vertiginously sublime breakbeats of yore, sounding like dueling video-game soundtracks. “Cfern,” with its blocky snare-kick interactions and meandering melody, comes off like some kind of icy cyber-go-go played at 16 rpm. And the fractured hiphop groove and skittery triplet glitches of “Sim Gishel” shape-shift organically over smeary industrial noise, gettin’ both jiggy and downright frightening.
Ultimately, though, this trio of solid tracks isn’t enough to save Confield. Whereas the caffeinated, quasi-jungle beat barrage that introduced Autechre’s 1998 LP5 was impossible to ignore, Confield immediately fades into the background and stays there. It’s easy to imagine that the disc is an attempt by the ever-restless duo to chart a new course. But in shifting too far away from techno’s four-on-the-floor danceworthiness, Booth and Brown have sacrificed much of what made their earlier records so compelling.
Like Autechre, To Rococo Rot has priorities beyond mere shake appeal. However, the Berlin/Düsseldorf trio’s rhythmic world is far more static than Booth and Brown’s. Drawing on Neu!’s unchanging Krautrock pulse for inspiration, brothers Robert and Ronald Lippok and Stefan Schneider (also a member of Kreidler) create austerealbeit definitely melodicelektronische musik that incorporates old-fashioned electric bass and acoustic drums. Despite To Rococo Rot’s anonymous electronics arsenal, the warmth of strings and skins makes the group’s music less claustrophobic and impersonal than orthodox techno.
To Rococo Rot’s songs reveal themselves only gradually, slowly adding layers of sounds and then stripping them away. The trio’s career trajectory has followed a similar path: Changes from release to release have had more to do with the temporary expansion of ranks than with any real aesthetic progress. As a result, the new Music Is a Hungry Ghost doesn’t sound all that different from any other To Rococo Rot discit’s just track after track of tantric rhythm sketches that inspire beard-stroking more than body-rocking.
To Rococo Rot’s fourth full-length, Music Is a Hungry Ghost finds the group spackling a few holes in its sound without really strengthening its songwriting framework. After teaming up with I-Sound (aka Craig Willingham) for a track on its last album, 1999’s lush and polished The Amateur View, To Rococo Rot decided to enlist the turntablist/keyboardist for a whole album. The collaboration works particularly well on “For a Moment,” on which I-Sound’s vinyl scratching provides a genre-spanning counterpoint to To Rococo Rot’s autobahn throb. The trio also hooks up with violinist Alexander Balanescu for two tracks (“From Dream to Daylight” and “Along the Route”) that seamlessly fuse dubby techno with post-minimalist classical.
But not all of the disc’s tracks are mold-breaking. “How We Never Went to Bed” is the To Rococo Rot songwriting formula in a nutshell. A wickedly busy circular bass line and paint-bucket-esque electronic drums lay the song’s foundation; it’s a great riff, but the guys never take it anywhere, even when I-Sound briefly throws in his two-cents’ worth of noise. Indeed, stasis seems to be To Rococo Rot’s MO: Music Is a Hungry Ghost is thick with loopy tracks like the watery “The Trance of Travel” and the pulsating “Overhead,” which operate more like brief windows onto endless rhythmic landscapes than round-trip songs. Although the band’s first domestic release, 1997’s Veiculo, used this episodic approach to mesmerizing effect, on Music Is a Hungry Ghost, To Rococo Rot just sounds detached and work-shy.
Or maybe it’s us listeners who have changed. With the supersegmented electronica market totally glutted, it takes a lot more than brainy, bleepy noise to inspire these days. Autechre and To Rococo Rot transcend their genre when they free your mind and ass in equal proportions. Unfortunately, these two discs blow the mix. CP