I used a day off work to listen to the new eight hour long Autechre album — NTS Sessions 1–4

Modified NTS Sessions artwork

09:06

It has been a while since I last used my turntable. I haven’t had my coffee yet, and it has taken me a long time to put that elastic band thing back on. So I’m clocking on six minutes late.

The opening track — t1a1 — starts in near silence, as is customary with Autechre albums. My memory of listening to this first time round was that it was quite dull.

NTS Sessions spinning on my turntable

Will it ever end?

You see, although I am going out of my way to listen to the NTS Sessions all in one go, this is not the first time I have heard this music. It was originally broadcast on the online radio station NTS, in weekly two hour long chunks back in April, before landing as a digital release shortly afterwards. This vinyl edition was released in August, and this is my first chance to listen to a physical version.

Having long challenged convention when it comes to music itself, Autechre have increasingly turned their attention to challenging the formats as well. Autechre have a long history with radio broadcasts, but never before have they used radio to showcase eight hours’ worth of new material.

The timeslot of the broadcasts was 4pm to 6pm on a Thursday. So I was at work when each broadcast started, being interrupted by, you know, work. During the second half I was walking my way home through a busy city. It’s tough to imagine a more inconvenient way to try to listen to new music.

Inevitably, I missed huge chunks of it. And while the stream continued to loop after the original broadcast concluded, it’s not exactly the best way to take in the new music, especially anything much-awaited from my favourite musical artists by far.

I revere Autechre. Since I discovered them in 2001 with Confield — still perhaps my favourite album — I have been in awe of their ability to reinvent electronic music time and again. They have many imitators, but only Autechre can pull off this sound without it sounding tired or derivative.

But some of Autechre’s most recent releases have lacked some of that sonic invention. Every release sounds a bit like the last one. In the same way that Radiohead now always sort of sound like Radiohead, Autechre seem to have settled into a particular sonic pattern. With some exceptions, tracks on the NTS Sessions plough a broadly similar sonic furrow to everything they have released since 2013’s Exai.

Musical artists tend to struggle to maintain their vitality once they’re a few years (or decades) into their career. As t1a1 continues to plod along, I wonder if Autechre themselves understand this, and have chosen instead to experiment with the way music is released.

It all began with the bonus materials that were released around 2007’s Quaristice. That album itself was unusual by Autechre’s standards, in that it consisted of 21 mostly short tracks, rather than the more normal eight or nine long-ish tracks. A bonus disc of ‘Versions’ showcased some alternative iterations of the album tracks.

A further digital-only ‘EP’ unveiled yet further versions of the same tracks, typically longer and more free-form. I use scare quotes as it is an EP in name only, because it is in fact over two hours long. It culminated in an hour-long track, Perlence subrange 6-36. It is far inferior to the proper Perlence, and a decade on I still find little reward from that particular track.

But many of the versions were great in their own right. And if nothing else, it was a fascinating peek behind the curtain. Autechre are often cagey in interviews about how exactly they make their music. But by releasing these versions, they provided some insight into how their music is made, seemingly iteratively, with multiple parallel versions that can happily coexist.

In 2010, Autechre released what for my money is their best album of the past 15 years, Oversteps. It stands apart sonically from all other recent Autechre music, with a unique vision and focus. Its companion EP, Move of Ten, was less up-front about its origins as alternate versions of the album tracks. But keen ears could nonetheless immediately recognise the associations.

Following this came Autechre’s first double album, Exai. In practice, it sounded like two middling Autechre albums released side-by-side. Each of them had some incredible moments. But I always wondered how much better Exai might have sounded if they had edited it down to one disc.

Then came AE_LIVE in 2015. Their first digital-only release, it consists of nine hour-long soundboard recordings from their live tour of 2014 to 2015. Each of the nine recordings is fundamentally the same set. They each share common elements and a similar structure. But the output varies incredibly. It was a fascinating peek behind the curtain of how an Autechre live set works, with the same base material evolving and adapting as the tour progresses.

Two years ago, Autechre took the next step and released their digital-only studio album, elseq 1–5. Ostensibly, this was Autechre’s way of breaking free from the constraints of physical releases. Yet despite its digital-only nature, it was still released in five album-length parts.

Once again, elseq 1–5 contained some staggering moments. But I couldn’t help feeling that one or two albums’ worth of material had been spread thinly across five hours’ worth of listening. Two years on, I still feel like I haven’t fully processed elseq 1–5.

NTS Sessions 1–4 at least has something over this. Already many of these tracks have far surpassed anything on elseq 1–5 in terms of my appreciation.

09:25

Immediately, this is more like it. Side B track 1 opens with bqbqbq, a delightfully spiky, playful almost-melody. It sounds unusually colourful for Autechre, and sonically it’s unlike anything I have heard before. It almost sounds like extreme MPEG compression trying to escape like a wasp in an upturned jar.

This is exactly what I come to Autechre for. After the disappointment of the opener, I wondered what might be in store for eight hours’ worth of broadcast. bqbqbq was an early sign that my fears were misplaced, and it remains a key highlight of the NTS Sessions.

09:48

Side C contains one track, l3 ctrl. It tinkles into being, sounding like a rediscovered outtake from Amber (Autechre’s relatively accessible melodic ambient techno album from 1994), or perhaps a previously unheard-of Plaid track. Before you know it, it whacks you in the chops with a sucker punch of brash noisy melody and beats, much more in keeping with more recent Autechre.

Like all the best Autechre, it’s initially a shock, and it’s tough to know what to make of it. But repeated listens are rewarded with a sparkling melody and captivating rhythms that build to an intense crescendo, before unravelling themselves again. It’s a thrilling track.

10:35

I have reached side E and the sick gonk steady one. The payoff is gently teased part-way through, and comes more fully-formed towards the end of the track. But it remains incomplete, and makes the listener join the dots.

This is one of the things I love about Autechre the most. They show just enough of the working to show you what they’re thinking. But the ultimate solution is for you to decide.

I could really do with it finishing soon though, because the coffee I drank after setting up the turntable is urgently making its presence felt in my bladder.

10:52

Relieved, I flip over to side F. four of seven could almost live comfortably on Autechre’s LP5 from 1998. It pursues itself with urgency, which makes me thankful I didn’t need the loo while listening to this. It slightly outstays its welcome, before fading out into a more plinky-plonky version of itself, inexplicably reminiscent of Surfs Up by the Beach Boys.

11:05

Out of that emerges a shining, yet ill-determined light — 32a_reflected. Perhaps this is what coming out of a coma feels like.

11:12

Onto session 2 now, the fourth LP. It begins with elyc9 7hres, a highly enjoyable track with comical cameos of swooshing interference.

11:32

xflood is another highlight of session 2. It starts out sounding repetitive, but as the track progresses it surprises in its evolution. Followed up by gonk tuf hi, this probably represents one of the strongest sides of this 12 LP epic.

11:56

It is approaching midday, and I have been listening to Autechre for almost three solid hours now. I am not yet feeling crazy.

Having said that, I have just put on session 2 side C, beginning with dummy casual pt2. I do wonder if I’m hearing samples of the sound effects iOS devices emit when receiving and sending SMS messages. This has escaped me every time I’ve listened to the digital versions, but it sure seems to be there now. An early sign of Autechre-induced cabin fever?

Me wearing a North Face jacket

Nearly halfway through, I’m wrapping up against the cabin fever.

The title of violvoic almost suggests it could be an alternative version of Confield’s Uviol — though it’s not clear from listening to it that it is.

12:18

I have taken a short break to do a bit of housework, fill up on water, grab some fruit and take some time out to stave off the cabin fever.

Session 2 side D begins abruptly. As I recall, the digital version of this has an elegant crossfade. One disadvantage of the vinyl format. These NTS Sessions were, of course, originally presented in continuous two hour chunks. Some of the later tracks are so long that they must be split over multiple sides of vinyl. I’ll be interested to see how this works when I get to it.

I have just read online that some of the CD versions of these tracks are longer than the digital-only versions. Should I buy the CD version as well? 🤔

I spent £127.03 on this lavish 12 LP box set of NTS Sessions. That catapults it straight to the top of my expensive vinyl purchases list, beating the 20th anniversary edition of OK Computer I bought last year. Buying the CD versions would cost me another £40 plus postage. As much as I’m a completist (and I do own a few Autechre albums in both CD and vinyl editions), this may be a step too far for me.

NTS Sessions vinyl box set artwork detail

Having said that, the vinyl box set is beautifully designed by the Designers Republic, as is custom for Autechre. It sounds great as well.

12:43

peal MA begins session 2 side E, and brings a change in tone. Brooding and experimental, this is one of the quieter moments of the album — but one of the most interesting.

Its follower, 9 chr0, is rather forgettable. It threatens to get into the swing of things midway through, before becoming dull again.

13:05

As time has gone on, Autechre’s releases have generally become more spread out, but longer. 2015’s release of AE_LIVE saw them release 559 minutes of new music in one year. It’s challenging to find the time in my life to listen to all that.

(2015 was the same year Aphex Twin infamously uploaded a massive batch of unreleased tracks onto Soundcloud. I still haven’t listened to all of those.)

Look at me here, taking a day off work to listen to their new album clocking in at eight hours.

elseq 1–5 saw them release ‘only’ 248 minutes in comparison. But it was a different proposition. Whereas AE_LIVE showcased nine versions of essentially the same set, with elseq Autechre landed us with five albums’ worth of brand new material to digest in one go.

As I explained above, I still haven’t really processed it, and I’m not sure it landed so well. Moreover, to go for a lengthy digital-only release, only to split it up into five album-length chunks, felt like a cop-out.

In contrast, NTS Sessions feels like a great stride closer towards where Autechre might like to be in terms of how they release their music.

NTS Sessions vinyl box set

Coming to the end of session 2 now, it’s turbile epic casual, stpl idle. Clocking in at 21 minutes, this is one of the longest tracks of the album so far. This is ambient music in its true sense — as ignorable as it is interesting. It sets a mood.

As Autechre have turned to producing longer and longer releases, they have in turn produced longer and longer tracks. Up to their eighth album, Untilted, a typical Autechre album would contain around 10 tracks lasting around five to six minutes each. In that sense, their albums had a conventional structure.

The shorter sketches of Quaristice broke that up somewhat, only for Autechre to revert to more conventional structures for Oversteps and the Exai double album.

This era of digital releases is seeing them attempt to break free of those conventional structures. elseq, for example, saw six minute long tracks sit side-by-side with tracks that were 20 to 30 minutes long.

NTS Sessions pushes this further. The constraints are there, for sure. Firstly, the two hour format afforded by their radio slot. Then, the physical constraints posed by releasing them on CD and vinyl, which were no doubt on Autechre’s mind as they compiled the sessions.

Even so, this feels like a more coherent vision for how to release music in an increasingly post-physical era. Autechre are taking this opportunity to explore musical ideas more deeply, rather than editing them down to the six minute highlights packages demanded by the conventional album structure.

This does make for a less consistently exhilarating listen. Take any of their mid-period albums — Tri Repetae, Confield, Draft 7.30, Oversteps — and you are in for a solid hour of high-octane, concentrated, densely-packaged electronic experimentation.

Those moments are still here. But now they are spread out over eight hours. In between times, we have more rambling excursions. Those high-octane moments now mix it with lengthy mood pieces. This doesn’t so much suit concentrated listening.

Maybe it’s OK just to hear it subconsciously, rather than listen to it consciously, like you might with Brian Eno. Even some of the noisier tracks here feel more ambient in structure.

It’s perfectly valid. But it requires a mindset shift. One that perhaps I was not ready for with elseq.

But isn’t that why I like Autechre? To be challenged. Not just by how the music sounds. But now also by what it is, and how it’s presented.

As I write, turbile epic casual, stpl idle is still playing. I have heard it subconsciously as I have been writing. Only intermittently have I paid attention. But I know it’s good. I’ll hear this many more times in my life. And when I listen to it rather than hear it, I know I’ll probably be rewarded further.

13:46

After reaching the halfway mark, I stopped for a short lunch break. Session 3 opened with clustro casual, which sounds like a seaside attraction gone wrong.

It is followed by splesh, a seriously funky number with real attitude. A lot of my favourite tracks are in session 3, so I’m looking forward to the next couple of hours.

14:03

At times, NTS Sessions feels almost like a retrospective of Autechre’s finest moments. This is one of those times. tt1pd sounds like it could have been part of 1997’s Cichlisuite, or perhaps a second cousin of their 2002 b-side Cap.IV. Not complaining.

14:18

Session 03 disc CD

It says CD, but it’s clearly an LP.

tt1pd ended very abruptly. I can’t remember if the digital version was like this. Switching to the 7th disc now. Session 3 side C begins with acid mwan idle, a pulsating monster of sonic shafts.

14:30

I love love love this track — fLh. If you listen to just one track from the whole set of NTS Sessions, this is the one.

This is the genius of Autechre. A killer tune is right there, but it is distorted and mangled just enough to obscure it. This is what I mean about Autechre making (or letting) the listener join the dots. Like a Magic Eye picture, it’s there — but you have to work for it.

Autechre have created their own musical language. When I first heard Autechre’s music, I couldn’t understand it — but I was drawn to it. I could tell it was good, but I didn’t know why or how.

When I bought my first Autechre album, Confield, I was confused and let down. It sounded like noise. This is what people say to me when I introduce them to Autechre. It sounds like noise.

And at first, it does. But after a few listens, Confield all clicked into place for me. Now it’s my favourite album. A true reward for perseverance, deep listening and open-mindedness.

With repeated listens, you begin to understand how to read Autechre. Now I get as much emotion and meaning from Autechre music as I with any other instrumental music. They just convey it in a radically different way.

In turn, they have created their own convention. They inhabit their own sonic landscape. Autechre music can chiefly be understood in the context of other Autechre music.

Autechre have broken free from our conventional understanding of what good music should be; of what pop music ought to be. They are imagining an impossible future of music and exposing it to our present.

Anyone else who tries to do this ends up sounding naff or pretentious. But Autechre successfully avoid cliches. That’s not to say they don’t ever put a foot wrong. But in their singular and successful pursuit of the new and unique, Autechre have demonstrated their boldness and bravery. They are the most vital musicians in existence.

The past few years have shown some signs of that shine coming off a little. But with NTS Sessions, they have produced some of their best music since 2010’s Oversteps. It is incredible that, almost 30 years into their career, they are as relevant as ever, and more revolutionary than any younger electronic musicians.

Their many imitators can’t come close to Autechre, which is in a sense a shame — because I’d love there to be more music that is this good.

14:42

I have now written over 3,000 words, and only about two thirds of the way through. No-one will read this, I think.

14:49

I need a wee again.

14:52

Hints of something from AE_LIVE — g 1 e 1 sounds like a radically slowed down version of music heard towards the end of each of those recordings. Melancholic and wistful.

15:01

It’s HQ time. I can’t resist playing while listening to nineFly. This has shades of ilanders from Oversteps. It sounds like what would happen if you took the bits that are compressed out of MP3s and boosted them.

I’ve been eliminated from HQ for not knowing that the letter Q is not in the name of any US state.

15:44

Settling in for the final stretch now. I have just started session 4.

Consuming pop and crisps while listening to Autechre

I’ve got myself a snack to see me through to the end — pop and crisps.

Session 4 is the one with the longest tracks, and from memory the dullest of the four sessions. Let’s see how it goes.

16:05

Side A did indeed pass through relatively uneventfully. But side B begins with the luscious column thirteen, a truly beautiful slice of ambient dissonance.

16:36

shimripl casual is the penultimate track. Both of the final tracks are split across multiple sides. A lengthy fade-out and fade-in is used.

To be fair, this track is OK. But I do wonder what has been added since the fade-out on the previous side.

16:53

Here it comes. The album’s closer, all end, which is 58 minutes long. Wish me luck.

17:13

I am onto the final disc, containing parts 2 and 3 of all end. Not much has happened in part 1 yet, and I’m not anticipating much more happening in the rest of the track. It does remind me of the aforementioned Perlence subrange 6-36, which is similarly lasts an hour. Perhaps there is something I’m missing. I need to get into the right headspace, or turn the volume up really loud to get it. Perhaps I’m too old for it. Or too young.

17:56

And with all end finally, uneventfully, fading out, NTS Sessions is finished. It took me almost nine hours to listen to eight hours’ worth of music.

Concluding thoughts

Only Autechre could present their fans with eight hours’ worth of new material, more or less in one chunk. It is almost a nod of appreciation of the levels of geekery and dedication their fans attain. They may not be the world’s most famous musicians, but those who do know and like them revere them. Eight hours of music is a gift.

With Autechre, the reward comes from the effort. Not all of that effort is rewarded. But when it is, it’s really worth it all.

NTS Sessions contains Autechre’s best music since 2010. Not all of it is top-notch. But it has immediately made itself more vital than their previous couple of releases, elseq and Exai.

At times, it harks back a little too closely to some classic Autechre tropes. But at others, it invents the futures we expect from Autechre.

Lengthy, epic drones mingle with spiky noise-techno and glistening half-remembered melodies. That could almost describe any Autechre album in history. But the epic length of NTS Sessions makes it somehow more engaging that most. The range and diversity of sonic worlds traversed is greater than ever. And the length allows ideas to be explored more fully.

For me, not all of those ideas are worth exploring so fully. But there are enough highlights here to make this a vital Autechre release.

1 comment

  1. Another thing by sure is that the music of this guys is appreciated and understood differently, even by those of us who are already accustomed to it.

    Greetings from Argentina ‘

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.