Album Review: Autechre – “Exai”

Autechre - "Exai"
Autechre – “Exai”

I’ve been listening to this album a lot lately, and though I don’t typically like to do reviews this long after an album has come out (“Exai” was released back in February), some things came to mind when I was listening to it last week (not necessarily related only to this album, but to their other work as well) and I thought that they were worth sharing. I also feel that a duo such as Autechre that creates music that is unique, thoughtful, challenging and intricate is always worth talking about.

On “Exai,” more so than on past releases, Autechre finds a balance between repetition and eccentricity. Unlike the tracks on “Confield” (my personal favorite of theirs, though this album is working its way up the ranks, for sure) where the object of each song, or most of them anyway, seems to be to explore temporality and shifting time-streams. Though these explorations are not done in the same way as phase music, rather they do so in way that is akin to the work of Elliott Carter or Conlon Nancarrow where melodic lines of different lengths are performed at different tempi only to line up at a specific, calculated point.

These intricate, premeditated rhythms became the basis of “Confield.” Songs like “VI scose poise” bring out these temporal shifts to a degree, opening with a delicate timbre that resembles a spinning top, or a ceaselessly spinning quarter on a table. This track in particular, its opening, makes use of metric borrowings, switching to tuplets, and sometimes tuplets inside other tuplets, which gives the the listener the impression of varying tempi despite the constant pulse (remember what I said about Pink Mountain?). In this way our sense of time, our temporal footing, is disturbed. Not too many artists take full advantage of realizing the potential of this kind of effect, or manipulating this dimension in music.

Autechre – “VI scose poise”

Moving to “Exai” the foundation of the tracks relies mostly upon shifts in complexity, from the fairly straightforward “bladelores” to the densely layered and highly complex “jatevee C.” The trick with listening to Autechre, and this album in particular, is to listen for things one may not usually listen for in music. For example, changes in density, subtle color shifts over melodic lines akin to klangfarbenmelodie. Speaking of those color shifts, the overall timbres used throughout “Exai” are, for the most part, decidedly darker. I mean darker in the most specific way possible, referring to the characteristics of the soundwaves and where the harmonics are amassed.

Although there are brittle, piercing resonances. For example throughout “YJY UX” there are sounds in the extremes of the high register that are balanced by other melodic lines in the mid-range. This, to me, is an interesting component of Autechre’s music and the way that they construct songs. When there are extremely high sounds, the complex percussion often creates the low foundation which leaves a nice bit of space in the mid-range for any motion, or melodic activity.

Listening to “YJY UX” one can hear certain bands of frequencies dropping out to make room for other melodic lines that are of more interest to fill in those spaces. The highest pitched material does serve as simply a ceiling of repeated high gestures that soar over top of everything, yet they are not rawn to the ear as a melody. The line is the highest, and in some ways periodically the loudest as a result) and yet it manages to steer clear of becoming the primary focus. By and large this is not the case in most other songs – not just most other songs on the album, I mean in general.

Autechre – “YJY UX”

The music of Autechre is a music that resists all passivity. One can not listen to anything by Autechre passively. The activity and complexity of the music demands our attention. Listening passively is nearly impossible, and certainly pointless. The duo has even made it difficult to recognize songs by track name, often times appearing to be random letters, numbers and other ASCII characters. A lot of the track names apparently come from file names of samples that are used in a song, while others may be from inside jokes between Brown and Booth.

Album opener “Fleur” begins with a wildly energetic rhythm that eventually fizzles to near silence. “T ess xi” features some nice chord voicings at the beginning that make use of different resolutions of a suspended pitch to create motion through a standard 8 bar phrase. The first 4 bars end with a dissonant resolution, and that is finally resolved the next time around in the final measure of the next phrase, connecting it to the beginning again. After each cycle of this chord progression another layer is added. From skittering drums to bright syncopated stabs in cyclical rhythmic patterns that are lined up such that they accentuate the aforementioned suspensions. The melodic material shifts and swirls around these elements, building to its highest density before taking a step back by stripping away material. The final section of the song distills the essence of the opening chords to only two alternating harmonies that work to accomplish the same forward motion as the beginning, this time re-appropriating it as closing material.

Autechre – “T ess xi”

“nodezsh” resists all attempts at finding a steady pulse, but the more that the song comes into focus the less it can hide. The track features similar metric borrowing as “VI scose poise” but the hi-hat sound keeps the rhythm a bit more honest, giving the listener something to hold onto at points. There is also another element at work in this song and that is the manipulation of distance. Some of the timbres in this song are notably more echoed, providing the listener with a sense of distance, we feel that the sound is coming from further away than some of the other elements that may be up front. This is not just a result of levels in the mix, but about changing the profile of the sounds. Think about the doppler effect, or how distant sounds in the real world are effected by the space between you and the sound. Certain frequencies travel further than others, so the more distant a sound the fewer frequencies will make it to our ear, subtly altering the overall sonic profile of the sound. It’s about overall volume, but it is more about the ratio of certain frequencies to one another.

Though some may disagree, I think that “Exai” is one of the group’s most enjoyable albums. Clocking in at just over 2 hours it’s safe to say that the scope of the album is epic. Three tracks break the 10-minute mark, while there are several over 6 minutes. I don’t see this as putting the album at a disadvantage though. There is so much to listen to and so many interesting ideas flowing through each of the tracks, though not necessarily one overarching m.o. If you’ve been scared to get into Autechre, or haven’t really heard much by them that grabs you, start with “Exai.”

There is also a new EP coming out on October 28th, “L-event,” which can be ordered by clicking the link below. “Exai” is out now as 2xCD, 4xLP or iTunes download.

Videos//Warp records//pre-order “L-event”//purchase Exai//