Send me your track


Autechre - Exai

Warp Records


I have a loose theory that the two main approaches to making electronic music have structured different schools and different genres. There’s sampling and then there’s synthesis: the former based on the idea of capturing and manipulating the sounds that are already out-there in the world; the latter growing out of a drive to create new sounds, never heard before. Hence the schism between the tape-based musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and the tone generation of Stockhausen’s elektronische Musik; the break sampling of hip hop and the 808s and 909s of electro; soulful disco and Moroder-funk; the organic live-feel of house versus the synth-robotics of techno; the earthy roots of jungle and the digital future of techstep… OK, so these are forced and somewhat trite divisions, a false dichotomy that tends to caricature the artists involved inside tired stereotypes. But there is nonetheless a productive tension here that speaks to the desire to do away with such narrow-minded categories – and clearly the most interesting and valuable music usually emerges when the two spheres come into dialogue.

For me, the last really powerful Autechre outings were Draft 7.30 and Untilted, from 2003 and 2005 respectively, two albums that seemed to engage incredibly closely with exactly this tension. If it was not the first time the pair had employed samples in their work then, on Draft, it was nevertheless the first time they had really thematised the organic. The timbral palette was less exclusively digital, the use of space was increasingly important, with reverberation being used as an instrument in itself, and the gestures were far less rigid and surgical than previously seen. Here the sounds were allowed to grow on their own terms, rather than get snapped to the grid. Untilted was, in that respect, a reassertion of the artists’ sense of precision and control. Whereas the listening experience on Draft had been rather like wandering erratically inside the dusty cavities of forgotten studio sampler, Untilted felt more like a guided tour around the brightly-lit workings of the Elektron family of instruments, occasionally sneaking off down a dark and unexplored passageway. In both cases there was an undeniable and propulsive statement of intent. Each album’s distinctive character infected the other’s, twinning them, perhaps uncomfortably, but forcibly together in a way that marked a distinctive shift in tone from their previous work.

On Exai there feels like something of a defiant return to that dual spirit, though here it is more unified and intertwined across the spread of the double album. Sampled breakbeats appear often, disintegrating and reintegrating with more intricately programmed rhythms, and the exchange between scratchy lo-fi and searing high quality audio is constant, either alternating in polychromatic counterpoint, or layered into a schizophonic simultaneity. The play between the separate elements of the various tracks has rarely been more poised and deliberate but the result is neither clinical nor smug (as it was, to an extent, on Confield, an album whose lithe but malnourished grace has never really seduced me, though I fail to understand the claims to inaccessibility expressed by certain critics). Exai is symphonic in its scope and robust in its execution. At times the densely-packed force of the music obscures its balletic delicacy, as different melodic parts dissolve into each other, submerging beneath the texture before exploding at the front and setting in motion an entirely new collision of events. For the engaged listener (and do Autechre have any other type?) following such a rich set of musical relationships as they develop is a joy that is rarely on offer.

Proceedings open, in a common Ae trick, only after several seconds of absence, before the noise-floor flares into jittering momentum and the tone is set. But, for all its Gantz Graf-esque glitchiness, ‘FLeure’ only flaunts a surface complexity: consisting of a recurring four bar loop with kicks and offbeats marking clear time over a pentatonic bass rumble, this is one the duo’s more straightforward offerings. It strikes me as a typically Autechre manoeuvre, playing with their popular ‘difficult’ perception in a little appearance-versus-reality gag. Things get far more interesting (and representative) in the closing minute and a half or so, in a gestural little bass cadenza that snakes and pulses with energy. It’s a bass which is strained, fighting for prominence under a sense of its own dissolving structure, and it recurs throughout the album; if not the same patch, then certainly the same dynamic.

It’s there again in track two, ‘irlite (get 0)’, bubbling and recoiling on itself and underpinning the whole ten minutes. It takes on a more prominent role around 4.40 – initially echoing and meandering aimlessly, we move into darker territory as the bass moves to the front of the mix and growling white noise unfolds like sea reclaiming land. There are a number of these split-personality affairs spread across the album, where the tone shifts and reinvents the track’s purpose: ‘1 1 is’ plods along in jaunty head-nodding fashion, toying with low-bitrate compression, while its final three minutes could be an entirely different piece altogether (even if it’s clearly cut from the same cloth), sounding more like the monolithic granite constructions of Emptyset; likewise, ‘T ess xi’ strips itself bare at the four minute mark, offering a more anaemic variation on its opening wistful, drooping chords and sunny disposition.

The latter track also bears witness to drum programming that’s reassuringly solid but, like all good funk backbeats, also seems just on the verge of collapse. The beats are even bigger on ‘recks on’, where the slow kicks and splashy snares get you about as close to a slice of proper BDP-style boom-bap as you’re going to get with Autechre, even if it does then devolve into a more lo-fi and stilted aesthetic. The muffled, hiccupping break on ‘Flep’ offers a real taste of auto-nostalgia, recalling the rhythms of Draft 7.30’s ‘6IE.CR’ and ‘V-Proc’, at one point near the end of the track, almost mimicking the latter entirely – another little in-joke, or a nod to the auto-archaeological tendencies of hip hop perhaps.

One of the album’s highest points has very little to do with retroactivity, however. While ‘deco Loc’ may deploy the sort of squelching four-four beat that must be spilling out of the pair’s sonic cupboards, it is one of the very few moments I can recall in their catalogue that makes use of the human voice. With quiet appearances on Untilted’s ‘Pro Radii’ and Quaristice’s ‘IO’, and making a more substantial contribution to EP7’s ‘Ccec’, it’s always a jarring moment when this most intimate of sounds spews out of the maelstrom. In this instance it is the defining feature of the track, with stuttered spoken word set against either synth-vox pads or sampled vocalise. It’s like being caught endlessly ricocheting around the spasmic flesh of an aphasic’s malfunctioning vocal tract, and is utterly hypnotic.

That I found Autechre’s post-Untilted output to be amongst their less satisfying excursions is probably why I consider the revisiting (of sorts) to that initial post-millennial era so welcome. Having said that, paradoxically the threads that have most obviously been pulled through from Quaristice and Oversteps deliver the album’s really transcendental moments. I’m talking about those pads that simmer, shiver, and dissolve in the latter stages of their radioactive half life, only just pinned into place by burly but equally unstable bass tones. There is an early taster on ‘jatevee C’, where they take increasing precedence as the track unfurls, sizzling into distortion over a deceptively simple percussive backbone harrowing.

But for me, ‘bladelores’, the aptly-chosen closing track of the first disc (if you happen to listen in such an outmoded medium), is one of the finest twelve minutes of the group’s twenty year career. A reverb-drenched snare is repitched, filling out the space, then left to hang for a good five seconds, before exploding out of the mist right on the offbeat, redoubled by a second snare of gated white noise and a bouncing, skipping, filtered bass. A synth-vox pad like some sort of dirty, industrial Palestrina drenches the ears in choral yearning until the whole thing degrades into noise and resets itself, that insistent snare driving the track forward into oblivion. ‘YJY UX’, the second disc’s conclusion, is an inverted twin, in a way – misty and faded, whilst simultaneously stark and defined, sending signals imploringly out into the dank, synthetic murk, before gently receding into stilted barren silence. The two exemplify an overall logic that is harrowing and mechanical while, crucially, also managing to be warm and enveloping.

There are very few weak moments, the echoing clatter of ‘nodezsh’ being the only full track that tends towards stasis rather than momentum. As such, it doesn’t really work for me, although the manner in which it’s then seemingly reinvented on the following track (‘runrepik’), as an electro workout with buzzing chord stabs, redeems it in such a way that I don’t feel the need to skip. I also find the fading in and out of rhythmic elements on ‘irlite (get 0)’ rather inelegant, considering the subtlety on display elsewhere. But this is really criticism for its own sake and is certainly more a question of taste than accomplishment.

Autechre’s vast and involved body of work, as well as their reputation, precedes them. The sort of heated discussion that flares up around new pretenders to the corpus inevitably tends to consist of a round-up of the story to date (fair enough – their releases always prompt me to return to previous outings, to hear them in a new light) and a pronouncement of whether the recent addition constitutes a ‘progression’ or a step ‘backwards’, whether to classify it at the ‘accessible’ or ‘abstract’ end of the spectrum. I’m not going to do that. I’d rather consider Exai on its own terms. As a collection of tracks, it’s coherent, considered and absolutely rewards the patient attention it demands. Bold but defined, muscular but spectral – crucially, that it’s computer music is wholly irrelevant: this is music made with mind, flesh, and soul.

Toby Bennett




Reader Comments (1)

This is really cool I never seen Like this before

March 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWhatsapp Status

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
« The Third Man - Beyond the Heliosphere | Main | John Beltran - Amazing Things »