"Autotron" (EP, 2013) !DSO Recommended!
Our present world of readily accessed digital music is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because there is so much good music to be unearthed. (Lord knows how many hours I spend in a year rummaging round YouTube discovering previously unknown gems – but it still isn't enough!). A curse because the quality filter and 'brand you can trust' role of the traditional label has been massively undermined. Just a couple of years ago I could have counted the amount of self-released music that was worth reviewing on the fingers of one hand. This year, some of the best music I've heard has been self-released. What used to be the digital equivalent of the 'Free! Take me' bin has been turned right around by a continuous stream of good music, well-engineered and presented. All of which brings us to John Costello's Autotron EP. Available in a limited edition CD jewel case of 100 units as well as a digital download from Costello's Bandcamp page.
Costello was unknown to me until he put on Reproduktion13 – a mini-festival of electronic music last month at the Roundhouse in London. He's been bubbling under the radar for a couple of decades, releasing a few cassette albums before joining forces with Attrition's Martin Bowes to write, record and release a track under the name Engram. This new EP is Costello's first solo release since his Halflife cassette in 1989. Costello defines Autotron as "A person existing in servitude to a corrupt system whose control is so effective that the subject is either unaware of being exploited and perceives itself as essentially free, or is aware but chooses to live in a state of perpetual denial.' So, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a tad morose, but it isn't quite so. However, it does start with the haunting Tell Me Now, the shimmering theme to some forgotten cult ITC series from the early 1970s as if scored by a John Barry-inspired John Foxx. It's beautiful. Artist Architect is a compulsory foray into vocoder territory, with Costello reading out a list of architects he considers to be artists. It is defined by the deceptive simplicity of its construction. Its angular electronics reflecting back the glass and concrete of the buildings which inspired its writing.
Cities In Question is a brilliant slice of synthpop. It's almost as if Costello had secretly written Karl Bartos' Communication album, keeping this song back for himself realising it would have been a highlight. Curiously, Costello's voice sounds remarkably like Bartos' and his lyrics, like his more famous German counterpart, also resound with the matter-of-fact commentary on a modern world of globe-trotting travel and bumping into celebrities in plush hotels in America: “Check out Scarlett Johansson, get high on her perfume”. Nothing is the last of the four tracks and easily the most overtly dark entry here (reminding me of Costello's Lock, Load, Aim, Fire that featured on the Reproduktion 13 EP released earlier this year). For me it's the least memorable, seemingly going against Costello's natural writing style. Nevertheless, Autotron is all the evidence one needs to recommend the name John Costello. Time to acquaint oneself with his cassette back catalogue. 8/10
Rob Dyer (June 2013)