Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Album Review: Autechre - Exai

Rating: Woof Daddy

The prolific duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth are now on their 11th album as Autechre, and instead of resting on their laurels and putting out album after album of similar music, they are still fascinated by what machines can do and push their sound into as many directions as possible. Some critics have complained that Exai is a bloated, directionless mess, and in some respect I can understand that critique, but what those short-sighted people fail to see and hear is that the record is a culmination of what Brown and Booth have done over their storied career, touching on almost every phase of their catalog and yet meshing it all into something fresh and wonderful. Granted, at 2 hours of music, Exai is not for the faint of heart, as it is a very challenging listen; however, it is challenging only in the sense of trying to keep up with the duo's restless, ceaseless creativity, and not in the sense of their more obtuse records like Confield and Untilted.

The tracks on the album are perfectly sequenced between traditional IDM fare that Autechre could do in their sleep, abstract/formless works from their Confield era, hip-hop/industrial textured works, and dreamier ambient inflected songs. That Autechre masters all aspects of these genres is testament to their longstanding place as IDM gods. One thing I love about the duo is that their work together is seamless. At no point in any of their work can you discern which piece, part, or whole is made by one or the other. They are simply Autechre.

First track "Fluere" is prototypical Autechre, skittering drum patterns undulate over a clattering, metallic underbelly of claustrophobic textures. A variety of heavily processed synth noises and squelches poke and prod through the murk. While this track still highlights Autechre's more experimental take on IDM, they show they still can lean towards something more structured, like the flowing synths and whiplash programming of "jatvee C,"

which still tends to keep you off-kilter with sudden drops in the beats and sinister time changes. These more structured moments bleed into a set of tracks from the boys that could almost be described as "pretty;" more attention paid to atmosphere and mood than sheer experimentation. Album centerpiece "bladelores" is 12 minutes of subtle washes of electronics and keyboards over muted drum programming that slowly changes but never stays static,

while "T ess xi" moves lush synths over almost funk beats.

This being Autechre, however, there are plenty of flights of fancy into brutal experiments in fractured beats, inhuman time signatures, and keyboards warped and mutilated into making sounds that are alien and alienating. Shards of glitched out synths and ping-ponged drums programming baseline the horror show dread that permeates "tuinorizn," 8-bit synths and random drum programming highlight the haunted soundscapes of "nodezsh," while "runrepik" approximates what it would sounds and feel like to have millions of insects boring through one's body.

These harsher moments are much needed throughout the record as both signposts that Autechre are still interested in pushing the boundaries of electronic music but also to actively engage the listener, coming up at odd moments to pull you back into the experience. But they are wiser now not to let these tracks become the overall focus. Brown and Booth are still experts at beat making, which is highlighted in many hip-hop/industrial influenced tracks. Clattering drum programming and echoing funk keyboards flow through "Flep," "1 1 is" drones and lurches over metallic drum beats and gurgling electronics, and a sinister insurgence colors the glitchy abandon of "vekoS."

All of this is just a lead up to the brilliant trio of tracks that ends this amazing record. "deco Loc" begins with harsh, industrial textured drum programming, then segues into a gorgeous section of vocal samples that are eventually worn down into synth drones before recalculated into fractured cut and pasted snippets, morphing into hip-hop beats via the road to hell. "recks on" pounds 80s referencing hip-hop/4AD drum machines, harsh low end basslines, and white noise synth blasts into something meaty and juicy. Closing the record on a haunting note is the relevatory "YJY UX," 8+ minutes of dreamlike keyboards broken into by harsh drones, liquidy blurts of drum programming try to lend structure amid the conflicting parts of the track. The ending is magisterial, with all the disconnected pieces coalescing into a brilliant whole, before in true Autechre style, it wastes out in a flurry of deconstruction.

Autechre don't follow trends or do what is expected of them. They never release anything that is not 100% their own direction and of the highest quality. While some of their more recent releases seemed more muted or aimless, it was all done at the service of their immense and joyful love of music itself. This love comes to the forefront with this record. Exai is not just a great Autechre record, it is perhaps, next to Tri Repetae, their best record. Indeed, every time I listen to this record it unravels another layer for me, and I never tire of it pushing me to understand its meaning. If you have any interest in electronic music that will challenge your perceptions of what it is and how it moves you, Exai is essential.

Rating Scale:

Chilfos: masterpiece; coolest thing I've heard in ages.

Woof Daddy: excellent; just a hair away from being a masterpiece.

Grrrr: very good; will definitely be considered for my top releases of the year.

Yeah Daddy Make Me Want It: good; definitely invites further listens and piques one's interest for more material.

Meh: not horrible, but certainly not great; could have either been polished, trimmed, or re-thought.

Jeez Lady: what the hell happened? Just plain bad. They should hang their heads in shame and be forced to listen to Lady Gaga ad nauseam as penance.

Tragicistani: so bad, armed villagers with pitchforks and torches should run the artist out of the country for inflicting this abomination on the human race.

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