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Aphex Twin

...I Care Because You Do

(Sire)

Autechre

Amber

(Wax Trax/TVT)

Seefeel

Succour

(Warp)

In urban clubs the beat is the thing, existing almost solely to provide a relentless groove for frenzied dancing. Its machine-made rhythms drive the body to unceasing movement, and the conflation of sweat, exhaustion, and claustrophobic sound induces a sort of sensory nirvana. In the last decade or so other elements of the disco song have fallen away; melody, harmony, and texture have given way almost exclusively to rhythm. You don't really listen to house music, you feel it.

For years I found house music and its offshoots techno and ambient music easy to dismiss on the grounds that they were all assembly-line dance music without soul, personality, or edge. I never imagined I'd be moved by the beat of a drum machine. I was wrong. I still think that techno consists mostly of spaceless, robotic beats, and that ambient, which arose as the chill-out alternative to the dance floor, is primarily a glorified version of bland New Age spaciness. But there's some music affiliated with techno/ambient that offers something substantial and provides more than a beat. Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Seefeel don't neatly fit into the techno/ambient milieu but tend to get stuck with the stultifying tag because they often use the same electronic equipment and have abandoned the traditional song form. All three groups are tangentially related to the scene, but more than anything they exist as the latest points along the wildly twisting continuum of experimental electronic music. With postmodern acuity, these groups engage in gorgeous microcosmic investigations of sound, tension and release, and sonic development for its own sake. Melodies and harmonies might drift in, but their function is secondary to the process of decay and/or expansion of sound itself.

Aphex Twin is one Richard D. James, a prolific, reclusive character who in the last decade has dabbled with all sorts of electronic gambits from hard-core techno to wispy, if a tad dull, floating synth scapes to flat-out crowd-splitting experiments--one such New York performance found him dropping the tonearm of a turntable onto a spinning sheet of sandpaper, heavily amplifying and manipulating the resulting sound into a caustic wall of noise. A significant artist in the UK, Aphex Twin has recently released its major-label debut in America, a dazzling collection that showcases James's broad range and creative restlessness within a music that's seemingly limited. In some ways ...I Care Because You Do represents a composite sketch of Aphex Twin's previous work. Gut-rumbling rhythms and ethereal melodies remain prevalent, but they've been transformed in intriguing, sometimes disturbing ways. The weightless, banal single-note melodies of "The Waxen Pith" or "Wax the Nip"--two of several Aphex Twin song titles that are anagrams--are upset by a thick swirl of slowly shifting rhythms that are deliciously off center from the dance beat. Aphex Twin's minimalist quasi classical/orchestral proclivities--most recently manifested in a tedious collaboration with academic snooze master Philip Glass--are consistently disappointing and thankfully reside in the music's background. The beat resides up-front and gets transformed, reshaped, and distorted.

The album's most extreme piece is "Ventolin," a punishing assault of high-frequency squeals and industrial-strength hip-hop rhythms. The persistent, slightly painful electronic ringing--imagine a deafening TV test pattern--is disturbed only when low-slung bass-heavy beats cut through, briefly changing the ringing into a grumbling vibrato before it regains maddening regularity. "Start as You Mean to Go On" showcases a thick, pounding rhythm that spins off in minute fractal patterns that become the focus, while the rhythmic function simultaneously recedes into the background and holds steady in the fore. While Aphex Twin makes music with machines, there's nothing tidy or perfect about the results. In fact, mechanical malfunction is central to the music. The initial oppressiveness of the sound eventually gives way to a fragile humanity; imperfection softly glimmers beneath a commanding facade of cold infallibility.

Amber is the second album by the Mancunian duo Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown), whose indistinctive 1993 debut Incunabula suggested none of the startling, breathless richness to come. The album's stunning artwork pictures a landscape of rippling sand dunes, an appropriate image for a group that's concerned with exploring the small details of a seemingly homogenous expanse.

Nothing showcases this concern as well as the opening "Foil," an ominous rhythm loop that gets put through the ringer while a futuristic electronic hum undulates beneath it. The brief rhythmic pattern itself is unremarkable, but disfigured with a variety of electronic treatments that takes on a life of its own, exuding lush hues of gray and unexpected cadences. As with the music of Aphex Twin, "Silverside" employs a synthesizer-produced symphonic melody as a background over which to drape strange rhythmic manipulations. Electronically enhanced, the foreground shifts via an assortment of layers; several different rhythm loops drift in and out along with chopped up and distorted vocal fragments. All of these artists eschew song forms and the attendant structure of opening-development-resolution. Their music focuses on how a chunk of sound changes. They don't tell stories; they hold up an object and inspect it from every angle. Autechre's accomplishment is that its explorations radiate an elusive beauty.

Seefeel is the anomaly of the three, with roots that are more rock-based. The lead instrument is Mark Clifford's heavily treated electric guitar, and the group incorporates the nonnarrative vocals of Sarah Peacock, although on Succour they're cut up exclusively as a sound source. The group's earlier work--Polyfusia and Quique, both released on England's influential Too Pure label, original home to rockers P.J. Harvey and Stereolab, and available domestically on Astralwerks--is clearly indebted to the more experimental output of My Bloody Valentine, employing a regenerative exploitation of guitar feedback (i.e., sampling it and feeding it back in on itself) as an MO, along with favoring vaguely linear structures. On the new album, however, Seefeel opts to engage in its own examinations of sound.

The album's rhythmless and drifting ambient opener, "Meol," sets the tone, initially casting warm, nearly static sound scapes that ever so slightly fester with an acidic edge, and although a guitar provides the sound source, it sure doesn't sound that way. The album's other tracks incorporate prominently placed rhythms, whether the stark beat pattern on "Extract" or the dense, furious pounding on "Fracture." Like Aphex Twin and Autechre, Seefeel examines sonic minutiae, but Daren Seymour's hypnotic bass lines lend the music a dublike tranquility, a liquid center that balances Clifford's airy scapes and the rigid beat constructions programmed by Justin Fletcher. The tension created between Clifford's slippery guitar abstractions and the bullying pull of the rhythms, in addition to fluttering bits of Peacock's voice and sometimes distended bass lines, makes Seefeel's music a bit more involving and the listener's focus less clear. While deconstructing sound, the group also ties various elements together in indescribable ways, so that it's just as rewarding to let the music wash over you as it is to go along on the journey.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of their music, but that lack of definition certainly seems intended by Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Seefeel. To appreciate it one has to alter the way one listens to a "song"; at the risk of sounding pretentious, I'll say these are "pieces," and they need to be heard as self-contained sonic portraits. Once you can find the entrance to this music, those incessant beats will take on a different cast.

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