All of this happened in the delicious darkness of Washington’s U Street Music Hall on Wednesday night, where the veteran British electronic duo — longtime collaborators Rob Brown and Sean Booth — took the stage a little after 11 o’clock, obscured by two pole-mounted loudspeakers pointed directly at their faces. Then the room went completely black, and immediately began to fill with big vibrations.
After nearly three decades together, Autechre is currently on its first U.S. tour in seven years — two years after dropping its most dense album, “Exai.” Brown and Booth are widely recognized as pioneers in experimental music, but they often flinch at the heroic implications of that kind of talk. With their deepest roots planted in early hip-hop and electro, they use customized technology to create hyper-precise machine-music that’s ultimately guided by human decisions — an ever-evolving confluence of hardware, software and wetware.
On Wednesday, the duo’s high-decibel improvisations felt wild, but never assaultive. From the outset, tremors of bass slurped and simmered alongside rhythms that conjured Sequoia trunks being snapped like toothpicks. With so much sonic abundance and nothing to look at, these grinding timbres invited the mind’s eye to visualize industrial meltdowns, natural cataclysms and various extinction events. And whenever those visions became too wigged-out, a pedestrian snare drum would suddenly pop into the mix, re-calibrating the rhythm.
It was worthy of a concert hall, but Autechre still plays for dance floors, perhaps as a nod to its clubland heritage, or maybe in hopes of making communal public spaces feel more strange. Yes, you can hear the sound of worlds colliding at an Autechre show, but you also have to listen that blabby, wasted bro from Baltimore complain, “I CAN’T DANCE TO THIS!”
Plenty still tried to dance roughly halfway through Autechre’s 59-minute set, just as the night’s richest surges of bass began registering all up and down the body. But this was a chance to escape yourself, too.
Because when music forces you to listen this physically, the experience itself starts humming on two distinct planes of consciousness — you begin listening to your listening; you begin to experience your experience. We can do this anytime with any old songs, of course, but Autechre’s music demands it, and it offers crazy pleasure in return.
That felt like a good deal, and if anything, it confirmed that listening is not a passive activity. It provides us with choices. And in that sense, listening is freedom. Use it or lose it.