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Album Of The Week

Human Music: SIGN By Autechre Reviewed
Charlie Frame , October 15th, 2020 08:45

The new album by Autechre proves surprisingly chill, finds Charlie Frame

SIGN begins with the revving of a motorcycle engine.

Okay, so it’s probably not an actual motorcycle engine, rather a complicated algorithmic sequence that just so happens to sound like a motorcycle engine. Still, it’s a surprisingly prosaic opener for Autechre’s fourteenth LP, given Rob Brown and Sean Booth’s continuing explorations into ever-more abstract and otherworldly territories.

For a duo whose sound is more likely to invite descriptions of enormous great space vessels scraping past each other through extra-dimensional vortices, the backfiring of a motorbike seems quaintly terrestrial, comforting even. Does this signify a change of direction? A return to more earthly pleasures?

The cover of SIGN reveals a bold geometric shape in eye-pleasing red and orange that contrasts with the monochromatic hues of almost every prior release in their thirty-year plus canon. The name, SIGN, is also conspicuously prolix compared to more esoteric titles like Elseq, Confield and Draft7.30. Is it meant literally, as a sign? If so, is it a harbinger, a symbol or a signpost? Does the title’s capitalisation hint at something more cryptic, perhaps four letters selected by algorithm which just happen to spell out a recognisable English word? Which way does the sign point? And are we being misdirected?

SIGN throws-up further mundane paradoxes in that it is a regular-length album of just eleven six-minute tracks. Throughout the last decade, each Autechre release has been exponentially sprawling, culminating in 2018’s eight-hour NTS Sessions, a mammoth undertaking for even the most ardent fan. All signs pointed towards an even longer follow-up, a further upgrade to the software, and an even denser, more challenging listen.

Fans could be forgiven for withering at the prospect of having to wade through a further sixteen-hours of impenetrable machine music. Luckily, SIGN’s conciseness proves that Autechre are not ruled by rules and if they want to break the chain, they can. Contrary to some beliefs, it’s more than just a matter of punching-in some numbers and letting the machines do all the work. There’s always been a human hand guiding this music.

This is an intrinsic part of Autechre’s appeal. Even the most mechanoid tunes have something soulful at their centres. There’s that moment towards the end of ‘Cichli’, a celebrated track off 1997’s Chiastic Slide album, where the granular chaos of the rhythm lifts away to reveal a gorgeous floating melody buried deep within it. It’s like the clouds of a storm parting and the sun shining through. Even the most abstruse tunes on NTS Sessions have something human at the heart of them, and this is what Autechre fans live for: that moment when it all clicks into place, your ears focus like the aural equivalent of one of those old magic eye pictures.

Of course, it can take a bit of work and some deep listening to get there. But what if those layers were to be peeled back? What if we didn’t have to wade through hours of fractal rough to uncover those hidden gems of pure machine-funk beauty? What if the melody on Confield’s ‘Pen Expers’ wasn’t obscured by what sounds like coins being sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner? What if ‘6IE.CR’ on Draft7.30 were just the pads and not the cyborgs?

For the most part, that’s what SIGN seems to offer. And while it would still be a stretch to call this Autechre’s ‘pop’ album, it’s an overall easing-off of the dense claustrophobic patterns that have come to dominate recent releases. The majority of tracks eschew percussive rhythms in favour of a starker, more symphonic sound.

It might seem guileless to describe contemporary Autechre in traditional terms of beats, bass and melody. More often it’s a matter of timbre or texture, or something in between. But on SIGN, there’s a noticeable return to prominent tonal sounds not heard since 2010’s Oversteps. Indeed, SIGN’s second track, ‘F7’, with its peal of squealing dew drops could have been cut from a similar cloth to that album, which is no bad thing.

‘gr4’, perhaps the prettiest track here, showcases see-sawing synths that keen like a string quartet. I don’t think I’ve been struck in such an emotionally direct way by an Autechre tune since ‘Pir’ on 1999’s EP7. Both ‘th red a’ and ‘psin AM’ cycle through just a handful of held, open chords, allowing the listener to home-in on the granular complexities of these with little else getting in the way.

Of course, being Autechre, this is far from a straight-up ‘melodic ambient’ record. ‘au14’ swings in a completely different direction, consisting almost entirely of beats. But even here, the rhythm is presented with minimal ornamentation. It is complex, but never busy. ‘si007’ features a dry kick that always seems a micro-step ahead of itself, like feet tripping over themselves. The effect is like hurrying down an airlocked gangway in the wrong-sized shoes.

SIGN’s relative accessibility would make it a fine introduction for the uninitiated, which is more than can be said for anything they’ve released in at least twenty years. Some hardened fans looking for the next step in Autechre’s evolution might feel underwhelmed. But honestly, there’s more than enough opaque futurism on the NTS Sessions for any carbon lifeform to unpack for years to come. Instead, SIGN is a welcome detour, a diversion, and in these difficult and complicated times, a salve of sorts. It’s as close to chill-out music as the duo are ever likely to get, making it the perfect Autechre album for 2020. With SIGN, Autechre prove they are in tune with their audience, and that this is still (and will always be) human music made by humans for humans.