Autechre / Massonix / Rob Hall, The Middle East, Cambridge, MA 14/04/2008


Posted on Apr 16th 2008 10:51 pm

Filed in Live | Tags: , ,
Comments (7)

FEATURE: Autechre, Massonix, Rob Hall live

Rarely are abstract electronic acts as well known for their live sets as for their recorded output. Given such a heavy reliance on sequencing and studio edits, one could be forgiven for getting bored watching someone noodle around with pre-recorded tracks on a laptop. Autechre, on the other hand, have taken a very different approach, eschewing laptops for their live performance, and instead working with a mix and match of sequences, almost all of them unreleased, for a live show that is intense and unforgettable.

Rob Hall started the night off with a DJ set, his first of three. Setting an appropriate mood for the evening, Hall incorporated classic tracks from the Halcyon days of Warp and Skam, including choice cuts by Aphex Twin, Seefeel, and, of course, Autechre. Unfortunately, as I discovered soon after arriving, this crowd wasn’t much at all for dancing. The sold-out show was packed to the brim with mainly student/fanboy types, none of whom could muster a squiggly body movement, even when Hall busted out with A Tribe Called Quest.

Excitement brewed as Graham Massey humbly took the stage to finish setting up for his set as Massonix. Standing at the front (did I mention this crowd was also unusually polite to people trying to push their way up?), I was gripped by the feeling of being in the presence of a landmark figure in electronic dance music history. Here was the man who wrote “Cübik”, but there was no nostalgia to be found in his Massonix performance. Starting off with some of the sub-heavy sea noises that swam through the Massonix album, Subtracks (and would be a motif for the night), Massey was quick to demonstrate his versatility as a musician. Through the course of his hour-long set, Massey manned two laptops, a synthesizer, a guitar, and a soprano saxophone. Seeing him whip out the saxophone again brought back some excellent memories of “Pacific”, and his playing sat somewhere in between jazzy and dreamy.

The Massonix set also featured some dynamite polyrhythms, as Massey delighted in toying with the audience as to just where the “1” was on any given beat pastiche. Unfortunately, for all the brilliance in the composition of the music, Massey’s performance was set back some by technical difficulties, ranging from uneven levels between tracks, to a guitar that he had to tune in the middle of the set. With Massonix, Massey has brought forth some truly enjoyable ideas, but it might be a good idea for him to have another person for live performance, as the Massonix ship is perhaps a bit too complex for a captain without a crew.

Following another pleasant, but, unfortunately, once again dance-less DJ set from Rob Hall, it was time for the main event. I’d been told to expect a number of different things about Autechre sets – they’ll go on quite late, they might be laughably stoned, they play in the dark, it’s a full-on beat assault. Perhaps due to the strict 1 AM closing curfew of the Middle East, Autechre started their set promptly at 11, looking sober and serious. Darkness was the preferred atmosphere, as all the lights went down, leaving the audience to squint at Rob Brown’s white Hieroglyphics t-shirt, or Sean Booth’s face, illuminated by the red LEDs on his gear.

Autechre wasted no time in cutting straight to the rhythmic assault I’d heard on countless bootlegs. Performing, to my great surprise, with nary a laptop in sight, Booth and Brown focused instead on manipulating hardware sequences and synths, resulting in a multi-tiered, seamless set. Already, they’d skipped from pounding, 16th-note bass drums, to more ambient FM synths with squelchy percussion, to – oh my, had it really only been five minutes? Autechre played for one hour, but it surely felt like four.

Autechre apparently have their live sets down to a pretty exact science; either that or they’re figured out telepathy. Through the entire night, Brown leaned over to whisper something brief to Booth three times (not an exaggeration – I counted), and given the noises going off, I’d be amazed if he could hear it. Despite this lack of human communication, Autechre’s set was perfectly patched together. It was also largely composed of unreleased material. I have Autechre’s entire catalogue (along with the releases from Gescom, their more hip-hop oriented side project), and throughout the whole performance, I picked up on two familiar sounds: one was a series of echoing snare hits from the latter half of LCC, while another was a synth pattern I’d heard as “Untitled Track 10” from a bootleg. There was also some great mystery in the “who is doing what?” department. Through some staring and squinting, I deduced that Booth was working primarily on the rhythm tracks, as the LEDS on his gear flickered in time to the drums; meanwhile, Brown appeared to be working more on the dense synth sounds bouncing through the set

Autechre have repeatedly rejected the idea of releasing a live album, perhaps because they see their shows as uniquely bonded to the spaces and times of their performances, or perhaps because it’s kind of a prog-rock thing to do. Either way, it’s a shame that so much of this excellent material has never been heard by those who can’t see Autechre live / don’t download the bootlegs. There’s a boxset worth of smashing material crammed into these performances, cutting frenetically from one layered progression to another in a matter of minutes, and sometimes seconds. It looks like I’ll be processing this one for weeks to come.

Icon: arrow Autechre (MySpace) | Massonix (MySpace) | Rob Hall

Filed in Live | Tags: , ,
Comments (7)

7 Responses to “Autechre / Massonix / Rob Hall, The Middle East, Cambridge, MA 14/04/2008”

  1. maedaon 19 Apr 2008 at 9:37 am

    i’m glad you finally get to see them live, it’s a shame they don’t do that more often

  2. themilkmanon 19 Apr 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Have you seen them Maeda? I wanted to go and see them the last time they played in London but they were due on at half past midnight, and I had to be up early the next day, so I couldn’t make it. I’ve seen them a couple of times before, and thought they were spot on each time.

  3. David Abravanelon 19 Apr 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Glad you two liked the review. Ae live was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, hands down. They really have it together.

  4. maedaon 19 Apr 2008 at 10:28 pm

    yes, saw them too (actually it was pitch dark as usual:), 3 weeks ago..
    think i wrote a line or two at the board, great show it was

  5. bloomer_auon 02 May 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I wanted to say thanks for offering some actual practical detail of their live show. Surprisingly(?) almost no-one ever does this in such a review. I don’t see myself in the northern hemisphere anytime soon (very homebodied Sydney-sider) and perhaps don’t see Autechre in the southern anytime soon either, so I’m glad to hear about it.

  6. David Abravanelon 03 May 2008 at 10:02 am


    Thank you very much for the kind words! I was thinking that myself, while writing the review, how often the more specific details of what’s going on are left out from live Autechre reviews. I think there are a number of reasons for that. To begin with, it’s hard to make sense of what they’re doing unless you’re familiar with electronic music, and, more specifically, some of the hardware Ae use live. I recognized an Elektron Machinedrum and Monomachine on Sean Booth’s side, so when I saw the LEDs matching up to the drum pattern, I figured out what he was doing.

    The effect of Autechre playing in the dark is basically visual depravation, to make the audience focus almost entirely on the audio. There’s pretty much nil audience interaction, save for waving hello and goodbye at the beginning and end of the set. This makes it much harder to process what exactly is going on – I had to mentally take a step back, and make little notes about what things sounded like / how I felt.

    Lastly, I think the quality of the review (and what it addresses) depends largely on the audience for a particular publication. A recent live review in the New York Times, for example, spent a good deal of time explaining what Autechre is; when writing for a site like The Milk Factory, one can assume that most readers have at least heard of them before.

    There was also a terribly done live review in the Guardian, in which the reviewer slammed what he saw as a dull spectacle, and criticized Ae for not attempting to do anything visually. As I see it, performing in the dark is more an admission that, as electronic performers, there’s not going to be much evidence of causality, and thus not much for the visual minds. You don’t see someone sweat and bend notes when he/she is bent over gear. While Ae could also have gone the route of many other acts, and incorporated projected visuals, it would detract from the music as the focus. It’s a novel approach to performing electronic music, and one that, in my opinion, is much more rewarding for the audience. Of course, if you don’t care for what Autechre are playing, there’s nothing else to distract you.

    My word, I need to stop rambling late at night.

  7. bloomer_auon 03 May 2008 at 10:37 am

    ..and thanks again for some more details :) Yeah, I’m currently sorting out how I might present my own electronica live (as Aeriae – haven’t done it yet) and I’m thinking about acts I’ve seen, what and how I liked, what and how I didn’t. People have raved about Ae’s live shows more than they have not over time. But I saw Aphex and Luke Vibert live in Sydney in 04, for instance, and their hidden behind the laptop approach was pretty inscrutable, or dare I say dull.