Friday, 8 February 2013

Review: Autechre, Exai (Warp234)

Digital copies of Exai, the eleventh album by British glitch pioneers Autechre, appeared online yesterday afternoon at 2.39pm GMT, a month earlier than expected. Following the lead of a number of earlier releases (‘Tri Repetae’, ‘LP5’, ‘EP7’, ‘Draft 7.30’, ‘Move of Ten’ etc etc), the album’s oblique title makes reference to its numerical place in the ongoing Booth/Brown Collected Works, in this case ‘XI’ - eleven. For the code-hunting Autechre listener (and is there any other kind?), even the Warp catalogue number (234) catches the eye... Does this recording bear any relation to an elusive Warp123?

Warp Record #123, it turns out, was the 2005 album The Campfire Headphase by Boards of Canada, an assortment of acoustic guitars and ambient synthesizer that was seen by magazines such as ‘Under the Radar’ (in their 11th issue) as a masterpiece of modern pastoralia, an ecological album that foresaw an age in which “we’re all wiped off the planet by environmental destruction”. Opening with a grim masterclass in inorganic glitch entitled ‘Fleure’ (or ‘flower’), Exai might be seen as fulfilling the dystopian prophecy of BoC’s disc, offering some of the most forbidding soundscapes since their own Confield (2001), an album whose title already evoked a paradoxical fusion between the organic (‘corn field’) and the artificial (a synthetic ‘con’).

Coming after the increasingly approachable drone/ambient aural pallette of Booth and Brown’s recent output (as heard in Oversteps), the opening flurry of ‘Fleure’ suggests at first a straight return to the more hostile data-world of their great Mechanized Trilogy (Confield-Draft 7.30-Untilted), a shocking body of work that still ranks, a decade later, among the most challenging electronic music ever released by a major(ish) label. The indelible generative sequences are back, multiplying across the stereo field like tinfoil bacteria, an arrhythmic scribble of sound that is as immediately recognisable as the warped Martian blues of Don Van Vliet or the atonal sheets of sound of John Coltrane. At 2:52 in ‘Fleure’, however, the surface percussion disappears, leaving us in a gurgling soup of organic sound, punctuated by occasional depth-charge blasts (the spherical mines in a submarine epic) that resolutely fail to cohere into a sustained percussive line. The metallic skin has been shed, and for two minutes Booth and Brown explore the kind of harmonically driven soundworld found throughout their previous album, here framed by something altogether more austere. The combined effect (especially as witnessed via headphones) is of an unprecedented layering, from the surface of the mechanical ‘fleure’ to the liquid ‘xylem rooms’ within, a weird hybrid of two prior Autechres (so seemingly distinct).

This musical palimpsest, shifting between various aural strata, becomes one of the dominant aesthetic modes of Exai, an album that spans four LPs (precisely the kind of extravagance that Warner Bros famously denied Frank Zappa for his mid-70s Läther project). Granted such a gigantic canvas, tracks are able to fold and wrap in a far more prolonged manner than ever before, with ‘bladelores’, ‘cloudline’, and ‘irlite’ (the latter surely a reference to Mahler's 'Urlicht'
?) ranking among the lengthiest tracks of the group’s discography. Even the shorter tracks on Exai - such as the three that make up the second side of the first LP (tracks 3-5) - are bound to one another far more closely than on any previous album, with the buzzing percussion at the end of ‘prac-f’ (for example) dropping immediately into the wash of synthesized sound at the start of ‘jatevee C’. The effect is almost identical to the sudden disappearance of the beat in the middle of the preceding ‘irlite’ (at 4:29), rendering track division far more subtle than was seen on an album such as Quaristice, where each recording felt truly separate - a FLAC file from the Booth/Brown collection arbitrarily dropped into an album-length set. 

The overall result of this deliberate sense of expansion, both within and between tracks, is that Exai feels altogether more ‘live’ than the Confield-Draft-Untilted trilogy, its eight sides of vinyl (in the forthcoming physical release) each coming close to the ‘jam’ aesthetic of the EP-only 2008 track ‘Perlence Subrange 6-36’, a 58-minute piece whose improvisatory appeal seemed irreconcilable with the surgical precision of the albums it succeeded. This generous set seems to aspire to a defiant synthesis, offering an extended redefinition (after 10 albums) of the kinds of music-making that might be recorded/released under the Autechre banner. At times the phase/flange effects and distinctive stabs of organ/synth chords give the unexpected impression of a Bitches Brew touring band (albeit one made up entirely of husks of Cold War computer equipment). The odd effect is heightened by the intrusion of garbled vocals in ‘deco Loc’, and by the surprisingly danceable nature of the layers of percussion found throughout the album, from the basement hammering of ‘vekoS’ and ‘recks on’ to the sci-fi shuffle of ‘bladelores’.

In 1994, Booth and Brown responded to the Major government’s notorious ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ (a draconian attempt to outlaw rave culture through banning events at which the music bore “a succession of repetitive beats”) with their Anti EP, a recording which advised DJs to "have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment." Nearly two decades later, the duo have returned with their first album under a new Conservative parliament (Oversteps arrived almost 100 days before Cameron and co), and while Exai is offered for consumption without a lawyer present, it nevertheless restores to their music a sense of terpsichorean urgency, and an occasional fury that renders tracks like ‘spl9’ among the most abrasive slices of arrhythmia ever to grace a Warp LP. 

From its opening puzzle (5 seconds of what seems to be pure silence?) to the soaring electronic tintinnabulations of ‘YJY UX’, Exai is Autechre’s grandest statement yet, and - arriving just six weeks into 2013 - a safe bet for the album of the year.


  1. A nice, well thought-out review. I think the album is just super.

  2. This dollop of cackhanded, meaningless verbosity confirms my belief that there has yet, in the history of the world, to be a well-written review that includes the word "palimpsest".

  3. Well, thanks Anonymous 1. Glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for the heads-up, Anonymous 2. Although I'm sure the forbidden word must crop up in a well-written review of Smog's 'A River Ain't Too Much...' album somewhere?