One of the interesting things about the existence of a group like Autechre is the reaction from those who experience the duo’s ever-changing music. There are those who cling to the first few albums, checking in for the next 20 years to critique and long for a return to Sean Booth and Rob Brown’s ambient techno style; many graduate and fixate on 2000’s Confield, judging every subsequent album according to that standard (and many of those fans initially dismissed and now either repent or play off their feedback for that record as being too complicated and “cold”). Regardless of the opinion, these people all have one, and it’s often a really fervent online-forum-esque rant. Anything that causes this much passion and tension must have something to it.
The other admirable trait Booth and Brown possess is that, at this point in their career, they seemingly only respond and react to their own work (I will follow up on that in a moment). Despite also being at the top of their inimitable game, with most of the Warp Label pioneers, the listener can still trace an influence and critics can string together genre / name-dropping, such as the drum ‘n’ bass and prog-rock legacies in Squarepusher, or the folkish contingent in Boards of Canada, or the obsession with Acid in even golden god Aphex Twin (again, that is not meant to take anything away from these artists’ heritage). Autechre’s singular voice of mid 20th Century pioneers of Concréte meets latter half of that era’s electro / hip-hop keeps being just that: singular, incomparable and seemingly un-phased by anything but their last record. I digress, but see the last paragraph for insight into this tangent (and I had to show some sort of worth and tenure in the lexicon as I approach the Ae tribunal).
In 2010, Autechre released Oversteps, a marked “new direction” (or, in parallel with any scientific community, a “new discovery”, or, if you are in business, “disruptive innovation”, the new term for “game changer) for Booth and Brown’s construction of organic robotics with feeling(s). Less focused on a blaring spotlight of “beats”, Oversteps explores dense synthesized melodies and flouncing, blizzard-like processing (Brown from the liner notes: “This time we didn’t want to make a beat-centric album, but we wanted to challenge ourselves with using space while still retaining a rhythm.”) Taking in the innovation and technological advancement of the onscreen / literary universes where Blade Runner and Tron are set (add in the Cantina Band on Tatooine and The Enterprise bar set in 2360), one can imagine Oversteps as what music in The Future could be.
Exai continues in the march of Oversteps’ two themes: liquidity and tumult. The album is based on the classic threefold: drum machine, bass machine, something churning out leads and sustained pads; copious reverb, clever compression (note “nodezsh” which decays for the last minutes, the duo applying a hard stop on the limiter and ducking knobs with each pass of repeating synth stab) and virtuosic filtering works as a palette knife to chip around at the vanilla, discarding or turning the flecks into other ideas to squish back into the mix. However, closing your eyes, the music visually inspires an onslaught of the biggest, toughest alien versions of these engines that dwarf Daft Punk’s pyramid; turn these on, let them run wild (there is a “live” performed feel throughout the tracks) between 80 and 150 BPM and listen to Ae command and juggle the reigns of this beast. On the macro scale, there is an effortless movement, mixture and congruity despite the disparate palette and techniques that shouldn’t work together (or at least baffle most engineers when trying to mix juxtapositions and explosive collisions). Looking at each hand-crafted sound*, there is a meticulous treatment of every single sonic event; tumult, as in an ever-so-slight-to-extreme interruption to the quantization of a rhythmic pattern, a variety of attack, decay, delay, dynamics, fizzle etc. on every snare hit.
A common sentiment inserted during interviews with and reviews of Autechre is “they don’t care what anyone thinks”. No, that’s reserved for the guy who turns on an unwavering square wave, shrieks and spends 45 minutes flipping off the audience and pounding vodka (or those guys who continue to try to trick you with Trap and Autotune). Based on the tremendous effort expended on forging this two-hour, weirdly-embraceable cactus, the duo is obviously dedicated to bringing you perfection.
The fancy physical version of Exai (quadruple album or double CD packaged by The Designers Republic) is available March 5th, 2013 in the US, but the legal download is available from Bleep.com.
* For example “Flep” whose construction resembles the aural events I experienced while discovering a leak in the kitchen, examining it, trying to repair with a hammer, ripping the sink out and laboriously repairing it – except chop up every one second event and assemble it into something Antipop Consortium or cLOUDDEAD alumni might rap over.