It's probably the worst acronym in music history. IDM. Intelligent Dance Music. The words come out in a pompous snort, sneering down at anything that deigns to be merely "dance music," the fecal by-product of unevolved dunces more attuned to their bodily functions than the higher synaptic responses of the brain: "Duh ... Mongo like when drum go boom."
The fact that you can't even dance to IDM — just sit passively while the beats and synths trickle into your ears like only so much musical mist — makes the term all the more unpalatable. Feh! IDM, be gone!
But don't get too hasty. Text-message the Pentagon, call off the bombers, and let's have ourselves a li'l parley, okay?
Y'see, the main problem here is environmental. The albums of British duo Autechre, high priests and paragons of the IDM genre, lead all too easily to solitary appreciation. Since Autechre's 1993 debut, Incunabula, its albums have evolved (there's that word again) from minimal-but-rhythmically-functional ambient nightscapes into impossibly complex tangles of dripping pipes and interlocking wires; skitters and blips; wobbles and whumps. Each beat confounds. Each synthetic tone slips away before we can grab it for analysis. And between each cluster of dense activity lie vast regions of silent, intimidating vacuum. Part puzzle, part lab project, part sci-fi fantastic voyage — no wonder the brainiacs love Autechre.
More importantly, compu-nerds love it the only way they know how: jacked into their laptops, headphones set to a sensible level, ignoring all but the alien clicks and quivers of Autechre songs with unfathomable titles like "Corc," "Surripere," or "6ie.cr."
Trapped in their sexless bedrooms, however, what the IDM geek elite overlook is how astoundingly different Autechre's music sounds in a live setting. No, it doesn't give you the easy euphoric rush of, say, a psytrance song ramping up the drum crescendos to jolt your MDMA-dosed brain into serotonin overload. Autechre's chemical change is catalyzed by something entirely old-fashioned: that hoary old rock 'n' roll standby, the electric amplifier. Thanks to the chest-thumping volume generated by a club's P.A. system, what sounds like a dry, crackling leaf on CD suddenly becomes a percussive bitch-slap or the snap of animal bone. Soft liquid synthesizers turn into floods. And the beats that chittered quickly across your headphones' stereo field transform into ceramic balls ricocheting off the club walls.
As one would expect from the well-mannered lads in Autechre, its new CD, Quaristice, gives indications of the group's dual personalities. The disc begins with "Altibzz," a muted, dreamy float through gaseous cirrus keyboards with nary a rhythmic disturbance to be found. But things turn uglier by track three ("IO"), where grainy, spoken vocals mutter semi-menacing phrases beneath beats battling in diametrically opposed meters. Song four, "plyPhon," adds bass-heavy bumps, zittering electronics, and metallicized moans that sound like a ghost trying to use a modem. The following tunes attempt an uneasy armistice, with measured and resonant synthesizers fighting to be heard between outbreaks of distorted glitches, plonks, and shiverty-whizzle-konks. (Sorry ... something about Autechre makes me channel my inner Dr. Seuss.) By album's end, the gentle tides reclaim the day, the lapping ambient waves covering those nasty, noisy, arrhythmic spasms and spurts.
But if we've learned anything, it's to expect no such cerebral peace and quiet when Autechre performs live. Its masterminds may look like neuroscientists onstage, but that's only because they're busy operating live techno triage on unsuspecting young bodies.
Autechre's IDM-in-the-flesh ain't brain surgery. It just feels like it.