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EPs 1991 – 2002 John Doran , May 4th, 2011 10:22

The first two tracks on this relatively daunting but exceedingly enjoyable 47-track collection culled from Autechre's numerous EP and single releases stand apart from the rest in several ways. 'Cavity Job' and 'Accelera 1 & 2' are two of the scant bits of evidence of a pre-IDM, pre-Warp, pre-deep field exploratory electronica past for Autechre included here. Rob Brown and Sean Booth came from Rochdale and were early faces on the Manchester electro/hip hop tape trading scene, before having their heads turned by the processes of acid house. (The pair had their epiphany watching young producers making acid trax at college rather than dancing at some nightclub on drugs. They weren't part of ecstasy culture and always looked too young to get into the Hacienda, which probably had some bearing on their early switch from an evanescent 'ardcore sound over to IDM.) These first two tracks, 'Cavity Job' especially, have all the hallmarks of music made to be heard while stood in a warehouse in Hampshire in 1991 banjoed on all-night disco biscuits.

After you get past the bad ass, cheap & nasty synth noises, thunderous breaks and delirium triggering vocal cut-ups though, the weirdest thing about this early artifact is the daft skit that opens proceedings. Listening to a dentist reassuring a patient with the words "Now I don't want you to panic, I just want you to lie back and relax" followed by a drill and a terrified gargling, you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing a different band. Unlike contemporaries such as Richard James, the pair would all but abandon such things as recorded voices and room ambiance in favour of a very arid and hermetically sealed world of electronically processed sounds. But that's not to say that the sense of humour evaporated though - it just became stranger and more abstract. Just like their beats.

Soon after these early tracks the pair moved to Sheffield and signed to Warp, and their sound became remarkably different. They were featured on the first Artificial Intelligence compilation, which came with its own manifesto: "Electronic music for the mind created by trans-global electronic innovators who prove sound + spirit and whose 'listening music' cannot be described as either soulless or machine driven. The atmosphere and emotion both come from the musicians, their machines are merely the means to a human end."

One of the reasons this compilation doesn't really give you any kind of adequate idea of their sonic development over time however is that Autechre - like everyone else featured on Artificial Intelligence (Aphex Twin, Ritchie Hawtin) - had rounded on the IDM term by the time their next EP came out. Basscad in 1994 might as well have been released by a different outfit altogether. The tracks here are reworked and remixed tracks from their Warp debut Incunabula and only really the bad ass squelchy bass noises and improbably menacing synth stabs remained from before. And in all probability their penchant for neo-noir/gothic synthesizer flourishes came more from their love for John Carpenter than from rave.   

They may not have been dyed-in-the-wool ravers but that didn't mean they weren't sympathetic to the cause however. The pair released their most obviously (and probably sole) political statement in the form of the Anti EP in 1994. It was a perfect slice of Hogarthian satire on the incumbent government, made by people fed up with ravers being scapegoated and painted as vacuous drug-deranged criminals. The Criminal Justice And Public Order Act had just been introduced to prohibit raves, where the music was defined as a succession of "repetitive beats". The final track on the EP, 'Flutter', was designed to have non-repetitive beats but the band advised that any DJ playing the track should have a lawyer and musicologist on hand, just in case of police harassment. The band donated the profits from this EP to Liberty saying that they were bi-partisan, and that this protest was simply concerned with the erosion of personal freedoms. The track remains a masterclass in architectural drum programming. A vista of endless variety contained within a rigid framework.

The tracks on Anvil Vapre take their name from the Snake Pass, strangely as it was their most stripped back work up until that point. The tracks were culled from the Tri Repetae sessions. Likewise the tracks from Garbage were recorded at the same time as Amber. Although the mail order-only two track EP We R Are Why from the same period is not included in this box set, this disc still contains an embarrassment of electronic riches. 'Garbagemx36' is stunning tapestry woven from the then audio clichés cast off by contemporary techno, and 'VLetrmx26' is a sepulchral work of beatless beauty, like a passage from Discreet Music reimagined not as furniture music or ambient but as music for some suitably sombre state occasion.

EP7 by anyone else's standards would have been considered an album in its own right given that it is 11 tracks and over an hour long in duration but it's good to have it here as it marks yet another dramatic change in direction for the duo. At this point they no longer bore anything but the most fleeting of similarities to other techno or electronic dance music producers working at the same time, bar perhaps Aphex Twin. The chopped up rapping on 'Ccec' seems to presage the arrival of Prefuse 73's stuttering micro-edited Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives which would appear two years later on the same label. The tracks 'Gelk', 'Blifil', 'Gaekwad' and '19 Headaches' were recorded for their second Peel Session and were named by the venerable Radio One DJ himself. Autechre were massive fans of Coil and around this stage a collaboration with the other duo was started, and although this has never seen the light of day you can hear the influence of Sleazy and Bhalance in the occult industrial rattle of 'Pir' and 'Zeiss Contarex'. In all likelihood Brian Eno, Terry Riley and Steve Reich were also an aesthetic influence around this time given that they were building systems to make completely automated or 'generative' electronic music.

There's an in-joke at Warp's graphic affiliates The Designer's Republic. Apparently they always say that Autechre have claimed that the next album is going to be much more hip-hop orientated. The influence of this genre can be heard faintly across this compilation and with most clarity on 'Goz Quarter' from 1997's Envane EP, with its clipped and sterile electro break providing a rigid framework for a distant maelstrom of effects scratched in on turntables and a sinister sample from the Dr Octagon track 'No Awareness'. But really the presence of (old school) hip-hop and electro is felt in the pair's real time manipulation of beats and loops in the way that they create a certain manufactured sloppiness, a willfulness, a berserkness, a rawness that dissociates them from most other techno or electronica producers. And that's something that still holds true now more than ever. Contrasted to the conservative times we live in, some of this music sounds even more shocking now than it did when it came out.