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Autechre - Exai

Whilst the promise of a new Autechre album is always an occasion to become excited about and to look forward to, a measure of trepidation exists. With the promise of a 2 hour long, double CD affair, the trepidation grows to a sense of impenetrability. When presented with this colossus, you feel as though you're standing outside an enormous gated concrete structure, in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, whilst blood-curdling screams fill the air. And you must enter. It is one of the least inviting sights in music. Task yourself with reviewing it and trawling back over a catalogue that certainly doesn't read warmly and I guarantee, you will be overwhelmed.

It wasn't always like this, and if you are a casual observer who claims a passing interest in electronic music I direct you to their earlier work, specifically Incunabula and Tri Repetae. These two releases, and most of Autechre's work before LP5, are rooted firmly in the more established sound of electronic music. Autechre have evolved from a duo channelling early Brian Eno-esque ambient mixed with fresh DJ hip-hop cuts to a silky yet cold, calculating entity releasing sounds of such a manic persuasion you fear for their mental health. Never forgetting their roots, those initial elements are always present in their modern catalogue, usually chopped, skewed and studio-ed beyond recognition. Monsters amongst the glitch scene, with such a die-hard following members of the unique Autechre listener club have even gone as far as to have the back catalogue tatooed on their bodies.

So what of Exai? How do we approach this piece? I originally wrote the word beast to describe it's hulking frame, but beast implies, even on a purely primal level, a soul and a beating heart, a warmth radiating outward. Exai is not without it's softer, more human moments, however these are not the focal point. Rather than concrete themes they are passing fancies, ideas that become trapped inside the industrial noise before desperately seeking escape, suffocated and lost for many minutes at a time. Exai proves to be Autechre's most varied release since Quaristice, which was a brilliant snapshot of exactly what these two are capable of. Eerily moody at times (Altibzz) and then immediately disquieting (The Plc), with funk-induced danceability (FwzE), it was their strongest release. Exai comes on the back of Oversteps, a softer, warmer affair, and Move Of Ten, the anti-christ to Oversteps, as hard edged as a steel box and as industrially minded.

How should you approach it though? Chances are you interact with Autechre in one of two ways. Either you turn it on and use it as useful, occasionally engaging background music, or you immerse yourself wholly within it . For me personally, it was always background noise. Perfect to study to, even to sleep to. For Exai, I tried the full immersion technique. And what I discovered was if you sit down and focus on it, 2 hours races by as you're drawn in 100 different directions, your ears and mind struggle to keep up with the noises and structures. The number of sounds, ideas, movements, pieces of music that can be found in each individual track is staggering. Most electronic artists are
content with picking up a riff and playing around behind it. Autechre instead try 10 different riffs per song, and once this grows stale they start picking apart the percussion, uprooting all notions of rhythm and energy you have.

Take for example T ess xi.  It is the best track on the record, an 80s soulful synth plays something resembling a chord structure in such a way as to calm and soothe, whilst obnoxiously rhythmic drums smash away at the calm it creates. To reduce your sonic space even more there is an odd keyboard bashing occurring in the background, as if someone had let their toddler loose on a casio. The song works brilliantly, it is disquieting enough to hold your attention and groovey enough to promote listenability. They then almost imperceptibly alter the drum pattern to destroy all form of rhythm at the 2 minute mark, before the track grinds to a sudden halt, as if it is the soundtrack to extremely awkward first time sex. runrepik travels down a similar lane. The bass and synths provide an agreeable relationship but the drums are completely manic, it is as if a drunk child has taken control of the kit. The song halts and stutters as you attempt to wrestle control from the child but he prevails. Thom Yorke has nightmares about this kind of music.

So much of Autechre's music displays this inherent anxiety, a desire to disrupt the listener's mood and brainwaves. YJY UX showcases this perfectly. The sounds aren't threatening when extracted and seen individually, but these almost pretty synth sounds rattle around from speaker to speaker, almost signifying a descent in to madness. Even as the track deepens and mellows there is always these sounds on the periphery destabilising the psyche, piercing at the ear and drawing your mind in to an equally anxious state. nodezsh sounds like Kavinsky if they'd gone off their meds. An 80s science fiction theme staggers around the track, throwing up on things and creating a nuisance. prac-f delivers the anxiety in a much more 'Autechre' way, industrial, metallic sounding noises grind over the top of a completely off-kilter beat, building slowly but gradually to a peak that never comes.

Much can be made of these excursions in to insanity, but it must be remembered both artists are astute students of hip-hop and dance music, and despite the unconventional nature of their music these influences are littered throughout. recks on starts brilliantly, it sounds like a sharply focused J Dilla beat, something Biz Markie would've rapped over.  The electronics meld and contort around this strong hip hop rhythm, evoking the image of a contortionist standing in front of Eric B manning the decks. The beat evolves oddly, and by the time the weird staccato comes in at the end you're almost listening to an R&B groove or some less hard-edged but from the same family, something vaguely late-90s dance-ish. Even on jatevee C a sultry synth wave washes beautifully over you as a harsh beat provides an almost dance-able back up. There is a completely tricked out vocoder that sneaks in at 3:15 on cloudline, and deco loc even employs more chopped vocals, creating this low-fi complex beat that is insanely contemporary and rooted within the current rapidly evolving R&B scene (The Weeknd, Clams Casino etc).

There is such a density to this record. If I were to elaborate on all of my notes I'd be writing 30 paragraphs. Exai may be incredibly long, but if you sit down and drink it all in over a week or so you'd be amazed at the sheer volume of ideas and sounds they cram in to it, the multitude of moods they touch on. It's just such a disjointed listen that it's difficult to maintain your concentration levels. They have these manic, insane times and then these deep brooding lows, sometimes within a few minutes of each other.

9/10. Honestly if you sit down and apply yourself, you'll ask me why I didn't give it a 10. The record is like a completely jumbled jigsaw of a Boards Of Canada album, technically brilliant but chopped to the point of insanity. If it flowed more smoothly, if there was some attempt at collusion between all these varying sounds and noises, I'd feel like scoring it a 10. But then I wouldn't, because it's brilliance would be diminished.
Best Tracks: T ess xi, recks on, jatevee C

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