Autechre: Exai (Warp)
Autechre are sometimes perhaps casualties of their own legacy. The duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown have been steadily releasing quality electronic music since their start in the early 90s, and over the span of their career together, they’ve managed to completely revolutionize and change listeners’ perception of what electronic music is, what dance music can be, and where experimentation and technology can take you. However, at a certain point, Autechre veered far off the path of what might be considered accessible music with a series of albums that grew progressively more “difficult,” each one more obtuse than the previous. Confield, Draft 7.30 and particularly Untilted are each a testament to their ingenuity in the studio, their willingness to chase their inspiration where it takes them, and their unwillingness to compromise their musical vision. Their more recent output (the 1-2 punch of Oversteps and Move Of Ten in 2010) seems to have come full circle, combining their knack for atypical sequencing with surreptitious hooks or suggestions of melody.
Exai is in a way then their magnum opus, a massive double-album (over two hours of music) that brings together all of these sounds, gestures, styles and legacy into one elaborate, sprawling beast. While its running time may seem daunting, rest assured that like most of Autechre’s best material, it is something that reveals itself over time to be not only incredibly rewarding repeat listening but also much more human than its alien construction might suggest. This is a pleasant realization I made after the first few tracks of Exai is that while opener “Fleure” might point toward the squiggly obtuseness of Untilted, they quickly sidestep expectations of more of the same by veering all over the place. The second track alone has multiple parts to it, and when a series of brassy chords falls in place, it’s a welcome bridge between their more obtuse sequencing and their own nebulous brand of hooks. This grey area between hooks and something more elusive is a common thread between tracks like “jatavee C” and the surprisingly melodious chords of “T ess xi.” Autechre sometimes get flak for not editing more, and it’s certainly open to debate when they turn out a double-album like this, but “bladelores” is a perfect example of when more is more. Sometimes these guys really do need that full stretch of 13 minutes to let the idea sort itself out properly and patiently. (Anyone who wants to debate the merits of these longer explorations need only revisit their 1997 EP, Garbage, which is still one of my favorites of theirs.) “bladelores” ends the first hour of the album, and the second half begins with scattered beats and wandering synths (particularly on “nodezsh”), veering far out into leftfield with the ghostly whines of “cloudline” that gradually mutate into head-bobbing regularity. What I suppose is ultimately most satisfying abotu Exai is the duo’s willingness to indulge in proper beats. Loops, drums, traditional sounds — even amidst the sputtering synthesis of their aesthetic, a track like “recks on” throws down a shockingly mundane snare-kick combo that’s a really welcome return to traditional rhythm. Somehow it all comes together in the final track, too; “YJY UX” has a triumphant stride about it, with bit-crushed pads, chunky beats and a sparkling shower of synths.
At face value, Exai will not likely change perceptions of Autechre, certainly not in the leaps-and-bounds sort of way that Tri Repetae built on the melodic sensibility of Amber or ep7 evolved the squirminess of LP5. But instead of applying the pressure on them to constantly reinvent themselves, I simply embrace another unique and astonishing entry in their discography. It serves as another installment in their continual shapeshifting, emphasizing all of the things they are good at in new permutations and combinations. And that they deliver so much of it this time around, with so little that I’d edit out (editing becomes somewhat arbitrary with this sort of sprawl, almost undermining its raison d’être), that it’s hard to not herald Exai as one of Autechre’s more shining moments of the second half of their career together.