The first sound I hear is the pop of a cork. The echo is wonderful. Russell Haswell holds a champagne bottle aloft to the crowd, perhaps in homage to the decadent setting of the Royal Festival Hall. After taking two gigantic glugs straight from the bottle, treating the drink with the same refinement as one might apply to a three-litre bottle of supermarket cider, he mutters a few comments to the audience without a microphone, which are audible only to the first four or five rows of seats. This is why I love Russell Haswell. Even in a venue that so sternly imposes expectations of grandeur, he doesn’t adjust his mode of working. Coupled with the fact that I’m 8ft from a speaker that supplies 90% of my sonic experience, flattening the venue acoustics into a hard, visceral blast of signal, I could easily close my eyes and pretend that I’m at some slapdash house show, listening to Haswell’s noise spurting out of a tiny guitar amplifier.
Just as his demeanour rejects the etiquette of the venue, his music brings grit and immediacy to an instrument that so often imposes a sterility and subordination upon its performer. Instead of indulging in the practice of treating the modular synthesiser like a sterile scientific instrument, Haswell output is rabid and messy. This isn’t music that spawns at the intersection of meticulously pre-patched and frequency analysis. It foams at the mouth; it forgets what it was trying to say halfway through wandering rants; it makes dreadful, life-altering mistakes. It emulates ripped cling film and toppling raves, jerking between discharges of frequency and drum matrices with the samples shaken out of place. The crowd don’t know what to do with it. They start by cheering at the end of each piece, before quickly realising the lack of reverie Haswell holds for the customary alternation of conclusion and validatory applause. A lot of the tracks seem to splutter to a close after 30 seconds at the performer’s nonchalant, seemingly arbitrary behest, while others revive themselves after a few seconds of silence, bursting back into uncertain spates of reprise before dying off again. Yet despite the brashness of the delivery, there’s undoubtedly a strong sculptural underpinning to Haswell’s practice. His sounds are vivid and minimal, placed upon plinth of silence to be admired for all their electronic stains and dog-eared edges.
After a short break, the lights go down until the hall is in absolute darkness. Autechre begin immediately. My mind runs wild. In the opening moments I visualise the autonomous assembly of skyscraper foundations: great girders of sound clanging together and driving themselves into the earth, assembling a tower that wobbles in defiance of its own visceral heft. Through a combination of the darkness and Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic breadth, these sounds feel gigantic and present enough to touch. I hear rich analogies to gurgling water and fracturing glass, or overcharged strobe lights refracted through glissando curvature, or crushed metals uncrumpling into immaculate flat sheets. The stereo field stretches to perimeters I never knew existed, as drum samples seem to ricochet in the rooms of adjacent listening experiences. Autechre have never felt so synaesthesic. At several points I feel like I could get out of my seat and walk into the landscapes that shimmer and breathe in front of me, were it not for the risk – which feels quite genuine – of being hit round the head by some wayward block of musical debris.
Unlike the distinct (albeit slippery) beats of their recorded material, musical structure manifests as an outline that the duo frequently overstep. In fact, those brief passages of 4/4 feel like split-seconds of accident, like fortuitous alignments of pedestrian footsteps that dissolve without the upkeep of rhythmic intention – tiny, unintentional allusions to Autechre’s more structurally adherent past, with the spectre of underground night clubs appearing in laconic stretches of slurred, sleeping pill techno. Elsewhere, the experience is a bizarre catalogue of chemical reactions and anti-gravity experiments. Lightning erupts in the collision between skipping hi-hats and low frequency. Floors swivel to where the walls should be, leaving me chasing illusions of shapes that melt before my mind can make sense of them. When the lights finally come back up, I wonder whether I might have fallen asleep and started dreaming at some point. How would I even tell?