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Live Review: Autechre, Max Cooper @ Now Or Never Festival, Melbourne

29 August 2023 | 1:45 pm | Noah Redfern

Wild and dark sound design to hard dance and delicate ambience to melodic futurism took over a historic venue in Melbourne.


Autechre (Credit: Bafic/Warp Records)

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On Friday night, Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building played host to a transformative and exciting set of performances from some of the UK’s most acclaimed and prolific experimental electronic artists as part of Now Or Never Festival. Featuring Autechre, Max Cooper, Actress and Giant Swan, the evening truly was a beautiful clashing of worlds rarely seen before.

Typically a venue for conventions, vaccinations and other more mundane activities, the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens became a whole new beast as part of Melbourne’s Now Or Never festival.

With drapes covering every window and a sprawling open space lit up by one massive screen at the end of the hall, the room became an arena of futurism and creativity. Psychedelic visuals, strobing lights and brilliant patterns covered the crowd and coordinated with the progressive and experimental sounds tailor-made for our enjoyment.

Commencing the performances was ambient and outsider-house artist Actress. Mixing field recordings, live synthesis and a heartbeat of pulsing bass, the tone for Actress’ set was like a calm before the storm. A hypnotic, minimal yet intoxicating performance, much of the sound was filtered and glitched out, as though heard through an old television with a high threshold for the low end.

This tone of dream-like rave was matched by a brilliant visual on the massive screen behind the performer. A somewhat see-through projection of bright and inverted colours, with sparkling and glitched-out effects, grainy shapes and visual noise, acted as a perfect companion to the soundscape. A tone setter for the evening, Actress was nothing short of an all-encompassing sonic journey.

Breaking into the higher BPM, Giant Swan introduced a more industrial techno sound to the evening. Robin Stewart and Harry Wright, the pair of producers and DJs known as Giant Swan, redefined sound design within electronic music.

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The focus on rhythm, space and depth provoked a darker and more dissociative mood. Faint glimpses of chopped and beaten human vocals sometimes snuck through the mix, but largely, the dark futurism took over. More of the crowd danced for this set, but many were still intoxicated by the visuals on display, with Giant Swan’s set taking advantage of the see-through screen, making patterns appear almost three-dimensional even without the use of smoke machines.

For headliner and classic IDM duo Rob Brown and Sean Booth, collectively known as Autechre, no visuals were to accompany the performance. Preferring complete darkness, Autechre forced their audience to completely focus on the music and listen intently rather than split their concentration.

Autechre’s performance consisted of a fusion of ambience, progressive pads, high-end buzzing sequencers and knocking bass. A deep focus on sound design and slow-burn synthesis is at the core of their sound, and although the darkness didn’t quite have the intended effect due to security lights remaining active, the desired effect of pure sonic awareness was certainly achieved. Seeing classic IDM favourites like Autechre in the flesh is always a blessing, and their sound is somehow even more intimate live with your eyes closed than with a good pair of headphones. Relieving the senses of their weight to focus on just one creates a true appreciation for its lone power.

Closing out the night was Max Cooper. Changing the sound again, Cooper’s music is a more progressive, cinematic brand of tech house. Building an optimistic mood, the music felt more positive and melodic than the other performers of the evening. This was not a bad thing, as ending the night on a less dark note was good for the event. Sampling avant-garde composers, looping delicate piano riffs and focusing on major chord progressions created a feeling of a blissful comedown after such heavy and complex sound.

A period of musical processing and thought settled upon the crowd as punters basked in the glow of bright yellows, blues and whites from another fantastic visual accompaniment during Max Cooper’s set.

A lineup of different yet consistent electronic artists blessed the ears of all, from wild and dark sound design to hard dance, from delicate ambience to melodic futurism. All under the roof of a historic old venue rarely touched by the sounds of today, a true delight to the senses took place at Now Or Never on Friday night.