Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Year in Autonomy

It's a little hard to believe that the Autonomic podcast only launched last year, in 2009, because the incredible effect it has had on bass music -- and even electronic dance music as a whole -- has been so wide-ranging and more importantly, indelible.  It seems almost unreal that two drum-n-bass dark horses (dBridge, coming out of the defunct Bad Company, and Instra:mental, returning after a long hiatus) could start a movement that has come as close as uniting the dance music world as anything possibly could in 2010: drum & bass, the genre that a few years ago seemed destined to forever thrive (or fester) in the darkest corners of aggressive, testosterone-dominated dancefloors.  2009 was the year that Autonomic emerged as an impressively accomplished brand, through the hard work and smart publicity of Mr. dBridge and duo Instra:mental, but 2010 was the year it was cemented as perhaps the most exciting movement, scene, or happening pretty much anywhere.  Who else managed to unite Zomby, Kassem Mosse, Jimmy Edgar, and Skream in 2010?

Autonomic is essentially a flood of outside influences entering a distinct strain of minimalistic, careful drum-n-bass (informed by electro and techno and everything else under the sun), a futuristic envelopment of the past that is so in tune with what Futureproofing is all about. It hit the public eye (or ears) through the now-revered Autonomic podcasts, but the podcast output was oddly silent in 2010, after its feverish pacing in 2009 stalled with Layer 9.  There's a reason for everything, however, and their radio silence was actually due to being tapped by London's inimitable Fabric club to mix the fiftieth edition of the Friday-night Fabriclive CD series.  It says a lot that Fabriclive 50 was subtitled Presents Autonomic: together, what the trio of dBridge and Instra:mental create goes far beyond dBridge and Instra:mental.  For those who might not have been paying attention to the podcasts, Fabriclive 50 would have been a breath of bitingly frigid air: the slow mixing, uncluttered soundscape and perpetually subdued vibe of the mix was antithetical to the quick and dirty thrash of most modern dnb, even compared to previous supposed reinventions of the form like Commix's Fabriclive 44. A tracklist made almost entirely of in-house Autonomic selections, it showed a distinct and delineated sound with enormous space for variety: the vocal warmth of Riya's "Seems Like" to the artificial exoticism of Vaccine's "Ochre" to Distance's dubstep-infected "Sky's Alight," the mix united the Autonomic labels of NonPlus+, Exit, and Autonomic (more on those later), as well as highlighting sympathetic compatriots like Shogun Audio and Hotflush.  For the most part, the mix was rapturously received and catapulted the sound to further heights of critical and popular acclaim, and deservedly so.

That was January: starting off the year with such a distinct (and publicly-viewed) salvo was a shrewd move -- or just a lucky one -- that allowed a narrative to nicely unfold in the ensuing months.  Instra:mental's NonPlus+ label quickly picked up speed in 2010 after a sputtering but promising start in 2009, occasionally marred by delays but eventually getting out a healthy number of twelves.   The lineup was a risky one, but the duo's curatorial prowess showed in the intangible but undeniable common thread that held such disparate artists together -- the purely Autonomic strand. At once Instra:mental outlined, described, and created a sound as they brought unfamiliar artist after unfamiliar artist into contact with the label.  Beginning with Skream's "Minimalistix," a squeaky-clean (literally: it squeaks) dubstep creaker, the label launched into unforeseen heights of transcendance by releasing a rare Actress EP perfectly timed with the release of his second album Splazsh.  The man behind 2010's most unique and damaged house music provided a wonderfully mechanistic alternative to the bit-crushed escapism of Splazsh: crunchy, decisive, and compounded with a unique swagger that brought it closer in line with hip-hop.

There was the "Ochre" EP by Vaccine, which provided her own heads-down take on Autonomic in both drum-n-bass and dubstep tempos, or the sensual machine-funk of Jimmy Edgar's +NXTLVLNXTLVL, sending the human deep into the currents of the Autonomic sound.  The most exciting NonPlus+ developments, however, were left to both a stranger and a deeply encamped member.  Kassem Mosse gave the label one of his few releases of 2010, with the agonizingly slow deep house producer (often dubbed "narcohouse") coming hard with the militant house of "We Speak To Those" and the drum-machine wind tunnel of "Hi Res."  But it was James Clements' (better known as ASC) album Nothing Is Certain -- the label's first long-player -- that delivered on the faint but overlooked promise of his 2009 NonPlus+ EP while completely demolishing his decade-long history of ambient and drum-n-bass music.  Nothing Is Certain was the kind of pristine, precision music that sounds like no human could have made it; yet it found profound emotion and feeling even in the coldest and iciest of sounds.  An album that brought chilly early IDM, warm atmospheric dnb, deeper dubstep and glacial dub techno influences together in a shimmering mass, it's the kind of completely unique work you'd be forgiven for not even realizing it was drum-n-bass.  Noisia it's not.  The album, released halfway through 2010, provided the mid-year reminder of Autonomic's domination, its appeal reaching well beyond insular communities much in the same manner as Fabriclive 50.

ASC's glories weren't limited to NonPlus+.  On his blog, he disseminated amazing mixes, tracklist-free, chock full of new Autonomic sounds from himself and god knows who else, and the the wake of Nothing Is Certain saw the founding of his new label Auxiliary, which started off strong with the sensually assertive "The Touch" and blasted into space with the Certainties EP.  Containing one of Clements' most hotly-tipped dubplates "Reality Check" and three other tracks, Certainties saw him beef up his floaty and ethereal sound for yet another new perspective on diffuse Autonomia.  His soundcloud erupted in a flurry of activity with new dubs appearing and disappearing at will, with the ultimate being his free-release download "No Time Like The Present," an epic halfstep number that seemed heavily influenced by his notable and long-running series of Deep Space ambient mixes.  Yeah, he does those too.

Instra:mental and their label NonPlus+ are only half of the picture.  dBridge's label Exit also had a strong year, exploring the furthest reaches of what could be considered Autonomic through already established trends while NonPlus+ was busy finding new ones.  dBridge's own twelve "Love Hotel" was a downtempo electro-bathed effort that seemed so immersed in Autonomic that it didn't really fit under any other classification -- not even drum-n-bass, while efforts from Digital, Code 3 and System showed why the Autonomic sound is so often classified under a "minimal drum-n-bass" grouping that may or may not exist.  Those producers provided ultra-reduced percussion-heavy tracks that act as the rhythmic bridging and interlocking gears filling the gap between more melodic and and astral jams from the community's more out-there producers.  Exit was also notable for the release of Genotype's debut album, the climax of his sudden return to drum-n-bass music. Ritual Dance was Autonomic in spirit, minimal and spare and emotive, but defiantly junglist in execution, showing that Autonomic could spread and apply itself even to old-school templates.  dBridge also started a collaborative label with Instra:mental -- because why not? -- straightforwardly christened Autonomic and releasing a collaborative effort between the label heads (collectively known as Plus Ultra) and Skream, Riya's fantastic Autonomic-pop EP (the aforementioned "Seems Like"), and perhaps most exciting, dubstep originator Distance's wobbly take on the Autonomic sound with the jerky ascension of "Sky's Alight."

The second half of the Autonomic year was defined by collective strength and a steady build towards a massive 2011.  Instra:mental broke the rules by releasing one of the year's best deep house tracks in the creepy but sexual lope of "Let's Talk" on the Irish nakedlunch label, while they began to absorb the spiky electro influence of Drexciya (so clearly laid out in the Autonomic podcasts) in a more overt way than ever before.  Most of 2010 was spent working on their album, due out on NonPlus+ in April 2011, and the first sneak peek came in the form of a limited vinyl-only single on Semantica Records, two short electro pin-needlers that, despite their spindly and skeletal bodies, exuded a warmth that could only be called Autonomic.  Let's not forget Instra:mental is a duo with individual interests: indeed, Al Bleek launched his own solo career with Boddika, debuting a drained, greyscale rattling on nakedlunch that no one could really decide if it was techno, house, dnb, or electro.  The ongoing Boddika project is yet another one of the most exciting and deconstructive forces in the Autonomic scene, and it's only growing more potent with each passing day: far from just being about electro music, the man has a love of house as deep-seated as the deepness of said house, and the trickling stream of decayed, Workshop-inspired dubs was as satisfying as it was surprising.  Forthcoming tracks like "Daze That Were," "Break Machine" and "Warehouse" show a producer more inspired by Kassem Mosse (there's the connection!), Shed, and Underground Quality than anything to do with drum-n-bass.  And of course, the final three Autonomic layers were released in 2010, with Layer 12 hitting in December, an epic 2-hour plus odyssey through the furthest throes of the sound, bringing even Salem into the sound as part of the famous 'influences' bookends.

In 2010, Autonomic was also all about bringing in willing participants: Instra:mental weren't going to do all the work themselves, and so some producers simply came into the fold of their own volition.  Perhaps most notable was David Kennedy, aka Ramadanman, working under his Pearson Sound moniker for a pair of Autonomic tracks on the early-adopting Darkestral label.  "Down With You" was one of the year's most gently haunting tracks, the plaintive vocal carrying none of the worried alienation of Kennedy's usual work and instead allowing the emotion to pillow out into the lightly galloping beats like the lush chords so favoured by the Autonomic crew.  Scuba and Geiom released 170bpm Autonomic-style tracks on dubstep labels ("Eclipse" and "Resi Claart," respectively), while Skream even included a straight-Autonomic 170 collaboration with Plus Ultra on his pop-fueled second album Outside The Box.

Autonomic's year ended with the same mass outpouring of love, admiration, and respect with ASC's masterful RA podcast.  Moving far beyond typical rushed 'podcast' territory into something that was worthy of at least a mix CD -- perhaps even surpassing Fabriclive.50, but we can leave pointless value judgments to the comments section -- using the same concept of slow, crawling mixing and the interlocking of the sparest and most minimal tracks to make completely new ones in the process.  The mix had far-reaching implications, touching even the stodgiest of techno and house heads and even gaining attention from cutthroat purists like MNML SSGS.  Best of all, the mix showcased the increasing obsession with melodicism and twilight evocation in Autonomic, best exemplified by the first harbinger of 2011's guaranteed excellence: the forthcoming Exit Records compilation Mosaic, two discs of pure Autonomic drum-n-bass that sees newcomers mingle with established names (Commix, dBridge, Stray, Synkro), as well as a few dubstep producers joining the 170 fold (in fact, Scuba's amazing "In2" might be the best track on the whole compilation).  With the impending release of LOL's Me Me album on NonPlus+, a new vocal project from the much-derided Mistabishi (Autonomic also apparently has the ability to revive the dead) and of course Instra:mental's much-awaited debut album Resolution 653 hitting in April, it seems like there's no stopping the Autonomic sound.

The most inspiring thing of all is the sense of community Autonomic has engendered, and it's a community that exists on several levels: amidst the producers at its core, the producers hedging at its borders, the producers and DJs from all walks of music caning its tunes, and the popular support coming from all over the spectrum.  It's simply overwhelming and almost beautiful in its commitment to making amazing music outside of genre, music that's as vibrant and diverse as anything else while still sounding of a piece to itself.  With mutual respect from people entrenched in the dnb scene, to techno's biggest and most formidable names, to dubstep's best underground talents, it's an increasing dialogue that only becomes more powerful as it feeds on itself.  Just as the influence of Autonomic brings bass music closer to credibility in snobby and insular techno circles, techno gains even more foothold in the swirling and liquid scenes of dubstep, drum-n-bass, and beyond.  As Boddika collaborates with Brendon Moeller, I wouldn't be surprised to see more such pairings, and with open-minded people like Marcel Dettmann so obviously interested int he movement, there's more where that came from.  Shed even remixed a dBridge track earlier this year, the memorable "ZX81," so there's already some precedent for an Ostgut-Autonomic alliance.

That all of the music outlined in this post sprouts from a sound conceived in the heads of a few guys based in London is almost unbelievable, considering the amount (and variety) of material and support that has organically sprouted from all corners of the musical world.  When the most respected and admired producers in electronic music start making overtures towards the breakneck dnb tempo of 170bpm, you just know something's changing.  This post has been mostly about outsiders; how about the insiders?  The Autonomic has had a profound effect on a drum-n-bass scene, as several labels break from the pack and try to establish themselves as arbiters for a 'deeper' sound, slightly influenced by Autonomic without borrowing too much.  Labels like Shogun Audio, Critical, Warm Communications, et al, are working toward a new ideal of forward-thinking, spacious and danceable drum-n-bass that is bringing a new wave of critical interest to the scene.  Most promising are Icicle and Rockwell, two new(ish) Shogun signees who both have forthcoming albums, and both emerging out of the gates with an established and impressive sound: Icicle's clean, techy, and clever, while Rockwell's expertise lies in spatial manipulation and rythmic experimentation.  Rockwell even released a track in reverse this year, the rather psychedelic "Reverse Engineering" -- reversal may be an easy statement, but it's a statement nonetheless.

All of this lengthy discourse culminates in one conclusion: that Autonomic is the most exciting idea going in dance music right now, primarily because its borders are so porous -- or perhaps non-existent -- and it seems endlessly adaptable to fit any current of thought or generic guideline.  Its origins are a simple love for music, as betrayed by its participants incredibly diverse and sometimes clashing tastes: but most importantly, it always makes sense.  No matter how far it stretches, how buried in house or techno or dubstep it finds itself, Autonomic will always be Autonomic and sound like Autonomic.  Autonomic will be a key player in 2011, and I only expect its influence to spread: because who doesn't love good music?  That's all it comes down to in the end, good music, and there was no better source of good music than the growing Autonomic camp in 2010.


  1. great read!! instra:mental and co doing big things for electronic music in general. much love.

  2. Great article. But oddly enough when you play reverse engineering backwards it sill sounds backwards :-)

  3. Fantastic article on the Autonomic movement! Haven't been this excited about electronic music in a long time.

  4. Nice words. Anyone interested in a mix of this kind of music can check my latest recording here>

    Blend of Autonomic and other delicate dnb from the last few years...

  5. Excellent article, thank you! Cannot wait for 2011. Must admit I jumped on the Autonomic bandwagon with Fabriclive 50, but I've a bit been obsessed since (to say the least).

    Also, highly recommend Loxy's CX Podcast series on soundcloud. :)

  6. Great job putting these developments in context, I'd spent quite a lot of time listening to their sound this year but after ignoring D&B for what seems like forever, it was a bit bewildering to realize that big things were happening in that sphere again. Glad to realize it's gaining traction with both insiders and outsiders, as it seems like a great remedy to both faux-deepness on one hand and banal aggression on the other.

    -Sach O

  7. learnt so much reading this post. amazing effort!