, February 25th, 2013 04:28
"The death of the album is nigh," crow the pallbearers of the music industry as a small, cold sun sets upon the iridescent slick of discarded CDs that once was HMV's empire. Yes indeed, it won't be long before our children's snouts will wrinkle up at us in disgust from behind their petabyte audiocrystal players at the mere mention of the sequent tyranny that was the LP. Listening to an album front-to-back will be the sole pursuit of giant harrumphing pipe-smokers with nothing better to do but harp on about how OK Computer changed the world, before gins are replenished and lap blankets patted back into place.
Never ones to be associated with this kind of codgery despite their status as electronica's elder statesmen, the post-2008 phase of Autechre has come to represent not so much a set of easily digestible volumes sequentially tracking their career arc, but rather a monolithic sprawl of computer files that grows over fans' hard-drives like an aggressive moss-culture every couple of years. Released on FLAC as a preferred format, the combined seven hours of music released since that time - totaling two official albums, plus the 2-hour Quaristice.Quadrange "EP", the Quaristice Versions, another full length EP Move of Ten, and now Exai, their eleventh album in an impressive career straddling four decades - has become impossible to process in any linear fashion.
It would now take a machine with a capacity and patience far exceeding that of any mortal being to keep track of their increasingly arcane song-titles alone, which are deliberately alienating in their anonymity, as though they'd been randomly selected from sections of a printer test page. I'd wager Autechre themselves have trouble differentiating between their 'Chenc9-1Dub's and their 'Nth Dafusederb's, but pining for the days of bite-sized four-track EPs like 1997's Envane would of course be missing the point, as would attempting to absorb this entire double-album's worth of new Autechre in a single sitting. Instead, it can be assumed that Exai has been designed to be dipped into and out of at random, possibly only one or two tracks at a time. The important thing is to give each tune the full attention it rightly deserves, preferably on decent headphones or good quality speakers. Anything less and it's just a load of crunching noises. Anything more and you risk serious aural fatigue.
That's not to say Exai is necessarily more challenging than its predecessors. It usually takes up to a few weeks or even months fine-tuning the ears before a new Autechre album starts to sink in. I'm pretty sure I haven't quite got my head wrapped around 2001's Confield yet, but it'll click someday. By comparison we're in native waters here – the first time in Autechre's history where it doesn't feel like we're having to sprint to keep up.
Maybe this is because those who have been following them for this long have finally become acclimatised to their sound. Or maybe Ae have settled into a groove where they're able to pump out hyper-complex electronic music in their sleep. Or perhaps it's down to a whole diaspora of music currently riffing on ideas that have always been Ae mainstays, with everyone from Zomby, Actress, Oneohtrix Point Never and DJ Rashad toying with the essential nucleic parameters of breaks-based music, slipping the beats off-grid yet retaining hip-hop and rave at their core.
Whatever the possible reasons, Exai exudes familiarity. While some might find the lack of progression disappointing, this isn't entirely bad news. Autechre have always implied a kind of future music - as in, a sound that points to a possible futuristic norm. Now that this future has finally arrived, listening to Autechre from the angle of the present is akin to enjoying a favourite meal rather than trying to acquire a difficult new taste.
Opener 'FLeure' doesn't sound a million miles away from the pinball madness of 'Acroyear2' from their 1998 masterpiece LP5, except this time the track starts boiling away into a Vesuvian froth until there's nothing left but a sea of molten bass. 'cloudline', with its ominous poisoned-candy melody, could have been an outtake from the latter half of Chiastic Slide.
Hip-hop has always been at the heart of what Autechre do. 'Deco Loc' reprises the idea of mixing cut-up vocal samples with big hip-hop beats, similar to what they did on 'Ccec' from '98's EP7. Meanwhile 'Recks On' wouldn't sound out of place on the b-boy influenced Untilted album from 2005. And for the ravers among us, 'spl9' is arguably the most rushy thing Autechre have ever released, and while it might not count as the most easy of listens, it definitely hints at what I hope they'll be playing on the dancefloor come the apocalypse.
A recurring concept that works time and again for Autechre is that of a yin/yang battle between two conflicting sounds. On Confield's 'Pen Expers', extreme use of sidechain compression meant that a subtle chord sequence was kicked into submission by a flurry of bicycle-kicking snares. In a similar vein, Exai's 'Irlite (get 0)' is a ten-minute, two-bout brawl between an angry rumbling sub-bass and a swarm of pesky vespine synth stabs. Despite getting wound up something proper in the first half, the sub eventually wins out, throwing itself back into the ring before devouring the little shits for breakfast.
The light/dark juxtaposition is employed again on 'bladelores', a highlight of the album, wherein the funky drummer break is slowed down by a factor of about ten, until it's just this humungous unrelenting thwack that echoes into an impossible unending chasm. Dirty, gritty little acid squiggles weave around the beat, and after a while these great plumes of almost trance-like chords start breaking through like the sun coming up on a sodden Tupperware-grey morning. It's actually a really beautiful piece of music in the same way that 'Cichli' or 'Garbagemx36' started out quite ugly and disjointed before slowly forming into a cohesive something-or-other. Of course, as soon as everything looks like it's going to go full-on chorale bliss, Ae pull it all back under and it's back into the boggy marsh before repeating the whole trick again, ending in an extended outro of washy evangelic organ.
Exai draws ideas from all through Autechre's illustrious career. Fans certainly won't be bowled over by the innovation on offer, but as a refinement of their sound it is the ne plus ultra Autechre album, honed and executed to perfection with only a few drifty moments that suggest it could have been cut down to a single LP. For now, the duo are still at the top of their game, but they should be wary of slipping into complacency and being caught-up by the new guard. Many current electronic musicians are declaring the use of laptops alone old-fashioned, resorting to hardware-based sources that they claim evade the confines imposed by software's limited capabilities, or combining sound sources from both hardware and software. While largely relying on highly-developed software packages with a great deal of flexibility inherent in their design, such as Max/MSP, for Exai Autechre are still drawing from a very similar sonic palette as their prior work on Oversteps and Move of Ten. As such, it is a comfortable and enduring listen that sits well within the same playlist as their latter output, but if they are to continue as groundbreakers, perhaps a new tack should be considered for the future.