As they prepare to release their 11th full album, Autechre find themselves in an interesting position, as artists who have become enduringly critic-proof because of their need to walk the line of stark innovation. Despite a tendency towards arctic levels of coldness, production that has been infuriatingly obtuse or dauntingly expansive, and song titles that sound like the result of sedimentary rock analysis, Rob Brown and Sean Booth‘s work over the last two decades has never been anything less than fascinating.
Autechre began their journey with 1993’s Incunabula, which harnessed ambient techno to haunting effect, creating silken vibrations of sound, with a core that never lay too far from the dance floor. They followed this with a cluster of albums which pushed the limits of what had previously seemed reasonable for their genre, their music taking the form of increasingly arrhythmical experiments which culminated in 2001’s Confield. That album shook off notional ideas of melodic song construction for a glitchy, minimalist soundscape, a batch of intricate technical marvels that were often confoundingly distant and inaccessible. Turning into something of an academic exercise, Confield felt like looking through a microscope at a million multiplying nanodes, too far removed from the spectrum of human emotion to be anything other than well regarded. Their subsequent work, up to and including 2010’s Oversteps, began to toy with the very space that Autechre’s music inhabits and in doing so, slowly reintroduced a distant glow of warmth to their sound. However, with few of their recent albums running at under the seventy minute mark, they seem to have traded ice cold inaccessibility for daunting volume.
So you might be forgiven for thinking that Exai, at a monolithic two hours, is little more than a test of endurance rather than something to be enjoyed. That’s certainly the feeling you get from album opener “Fleure”, a discordant and brittle shard of noise which breaks and splinters with every passing second; whilst very fine in isolation, the prospect of two hours in similar company is an intimidating one. However, in many ways this is a curveball, because as Exai unfurls, it reveals a generous heart which extends the warmth of Autechre’s most recent work whilst incorporating the familiar touchstones that have marked their entire career.
Alienating and ambiguous tracks which elude the constraints of conventional description collide with sumptuous ambiance. “spl9” is a rave at the core of an imploding sun and “irlite (get 0)” a discombobulating galactic jazz, while “1 1 is” feels like metallic worms trying to burrow behind your eyes and “vekoS”, with its tightly compressed clatter, is locked in a death-roll with a shuddering drum machine. These sit alongside the balearic tinged haze of “bladores” and the simmering, woozy shimmer of “Jatevee C”, proving that Autechre can still deal in discordant future sounds which have the power to shock in their complexity and menace, but also drop warmer soundscapes which conjure up images of half remembered nights and early mornings on sun bleached beaches.
Exai is not the first time Autechre have tried grand spectacle and, while not as frigid as some of their work, it does run overlong in places, occasionally threatening to overwhelm tracks and listeners alike. In spite of this, it still manages to be a powerful sonic collage, strewn across a vast canvas, which allows new forms to grow and demands that you step back and take in the scope of their offerings. From “recks on” with it’s minimalist hip-hop, all breaks and shadowy gloom, and “T ess xi”, which revels in the squelch and bounce of ambient house, to “tuinorizn” and “Flep”, which present slices of otherworldly industrial funk with cannibalistic glitches and crackling reverberations that gnaw at your ears for attention, there is no shortage of expressions to take in.
Unlike their earlier work Exai is not a stylistic paradigm shift, feeling at once familiar, contemporary and futuristic, and allowing their sound to shift and expand on foundations built twenty years prior. While it still remains potentially unwieldy and awkward for a casual listener, it brings an order of chaos to a chaotic sound, representing the best of all Autechre’s work in a cohesive distillation. For devotees who are willing to gaze into the digital abyss, Exai holds unfathomable depths.