Autechre, Confield (Warp): Very likely the most highly anticipated electronic album of the year, Autechre's Confield is also one of the most hotly contested. Even before its release, tracks available via Napster — some real, some fake — spurred ample debate on Internet newsgroups regarding the album's merits, and critics' response has proved no less varied (or vehement). For many listeners, Autechre have lost the script; they've left behind the emotive terrain for which they were once known, and ventured into the cold confines of the blasted, post-humanist world. Their early releases like Incunabula and Amber were marked by syncopated variations on techno and electro, shot through with keening, melancholic synthesizer leads. They paved the way for a generation of post-techno producers including Funkstörung, Arovane and Markant, who worked Autechre's early blueprints into a formulaic version of IDM ("Intelligent Dance Music"). But the Manchester duo's recent offerings, such as LP and EP, find them eschewing predictable four-bar melodies and moving toward increasingly complex configurations of rhythmic clatter. Confield, with its dense thickets of evolving beats and open-ended melodies that seem more Schönberg than Chopin, is the logical extension of this progression. As David Toop profiles them in the current issue of The Wire, Autechre are part of a movement of artists exploring generative composition, harnessing algorithms and complex programming to create tracks that warp and morph independent of the producer's will. To whatever extent that method was used in creating Confield, the album certainly sounds like an automaton's creation. "VI scose poise" opens the album with a skittering cadence of ball-bearing rattle, seemingly without logic or repetition; this is as far from dance music's regular thud as beat-driven music gets. Over these prickly rhythms, a thin melody trickles down, but if it at first resembles the sustained ambient tones of Amber, it lacks the resolution of Autechre's early sentimental leanings. Tracks like "Cfern" and "Pen Expers" follow suit, teasing listeners with recognizable scraps of the old sound — electro beatboxing, organ swell — before freezing them with a blast of dry ice and smashing them to bits. The glistening timbres are familiar, but there's little to hold on to here; Confield's lithe processes slip nimbly from measure to measure, creating themselves anew at every turn. The detractors are right, in one sense — Confield is cold, forbidding music. There's nothing catchy about it — indeed, very little "pleasant" at all. Lacking the pathos that makes even self-consciously gloomy music sound reassuring, Confield presents one of the purest approximations of "machine music" we've heard yet. It's profoundly unsettling, but that's half its beauty; it's a sonic Frankenstein that refuses to let its plug be pulled. For this very reason, ironically, Confield is the most accurate take on "Intelligent Dance Music" yet to be released. The genre's name, the source of much contention, derives from Warp's early-'90s Artificial Intelligence compilations, so named because their synthetic funk was meant to evoke the antics of machines blessed with AI. In moving even closer to creating a music of sentient computers, Autechre have stood the genre on its head, stripping it of its four-bar certainties and patching it directly — ominously — into the unreadable soul of the machine. — Philip Sherburne

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