A warehouse party, is it? Doors at 10pm? Finishes at 5am? East London, Saturday night? OK then, let’s grit our teeth and get down and dirty with the beautiful people, shall we?
Of course it isn’t just any old warehouse and it isn’t really a party. It’s the final night of Autechre‘s British tour to promote Oversteps, their most recent slab of sparkling digital glass-blowing, and the mood is, well, moody. The young and not-so-young mooch about in the foggy near-darkness, while the noise of a Jumbo jet engine builds, roars and fades from the speakers. Our ears are sufficiently primed for sonic excellence (the DJ plays the THX fanfare twice, just so we know that the acoustics are primo) and we can kill a couple of hours listening to a crunchy mix of industrial techno, hip-hop and soundtrack scores quite happily.
By the time the venue starts to fill to capacity (midnight-ish) Russell Haswell comes on for a brief, blistering set of ear-splitting tonal jiggery-pokery. ‘Power electronics’ is what Whitehouse or Merzbow might call this ferocious downpour of noise, a zigzagging, seemingly formless cascade of tweets, bleeps and roars, which often sounds like R2D2 being taken forcefully by an aroused Chewbacca. Not an image one wants to dwell on for too long, so the young girl sleeping soundly in her boyfriend’s arms in the depths of the crowd during a particularly teeth-rattling crescendo provides a welcome visual punctuation point.
At around 1am, the already sparsely-lit venue is plunged into total, near-impenetrable blackness as our headliners commence their set with a simple, monotonous one-two beat. Little hazy clouds of synthesised colour sizzle above this gigantic metronome, as the crowd begins to move, faster and faster, the minimalism and the darkness creating a trance-like sense of drama which is ingenious in its simplicity and boldness. As the sounds shift forward in intensity and velocity so does the crowd. The music morphs into a blizzard of harsh, thwacking beats like steel ropes pummelling the hull of a battleship. The crowd are really moving now, intense joy and abandon (and sweat) rolling off them in waves, as the volume climbs to levels that can be felt in the throat and the ribcage. Spare a thought for anyone in the Portaloos at the back of the venue, surely shuddering like ball-bearings in a glass dish by now.
Rob Brown and Sean Booth themselves are only visible from one vantage point at the side of the stage, and even then it is only their smudged profiles in front of an exit sign. Brown has said “The club space, if it’s dark and a bit foggy, with a console of twitching lights – that’s the ideal venue for us”. This is the very space he’s referring to, and while they may maintain that turning the lights off forces the listener to experience the music without distraction, it’s also a deceptively simple way of creating an atmosphere of tension and mystery. Autechre don’t deal in easily digestible chunks of sound at the best of times, but when, by the halfway point, it becomes apparent that everything they’re playing tonight is improvised (not a sound appears to have been replicated from the relatively subdued, pastoral-sounding Oversteps), then it may be logical to assume that the audience is in danger of being left rudderless and dissatisfied. That the very opposite is true is no mean feat. Crowd and artist are symbiotically linked tonight, every Wagnerian crescendo and seething wash of sound met with a unanimous cheer or a sporadic burst of applause from the jerky, arrhythmically dancing punters.
The hive-mind which has infected the crowd has made its way across the bar now (the only fully-lit place in the venue) and as another ominous thudding beat looms overhead, the bar staff go mental, flailing their arms and whipping their heads back and forth: not just a frisky one or two of them, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON behind the bar. It’s a rare sight, and one that dispels the popular conception of Brown and Booth as soulless, passionless aural architects, creating musical blueprints on a blackboard for boffins to tug their beards to. It’s also gratifying to see that the most lively and hardcore frugging is mostly being done by young women: while it can’t be denied that there’s a high proportion of goatees and shaved heads in here tonight, there are more females (and young females at that) than may be ordinarily expected in the audience for a band with such a stand-offish reputation, and this is bad news for anyone who would dismiss Autechre and their progeny as dull boys’ music.
Near the finale, a false ending: the music winds down into silence and a single strip light blinks on overhead. The crowd’s roar of approval is soon demolished by a loud screeching noise as Autechre plunge back into the dark one more time: the whistling, feedback-like underpinning is soon resolved into a tennis-like rhythm which calls to mind The Stranglers‘ Love 30 in an odd way. As this fades into finality the crowd bellows its approval once more, and excited chatter ripples through the throng. Dismal reports from earlier legs of this tour, of Autechre making their audiences suffer through sets of repetitive anti-entertainment, have been totally forgotten. Those who aren’t staying put on the concrete floor to continue dancing are heading outside for a smoke together, to dissect what they’ve just shared with excitement in their eyes, or texting people unlucky enough to miss it with any number of variations on ‘Sucks to be YOU right now!’