Autechre – Exai (2013)

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Is Autechre a group still gathering new fans, and is a review really going to make someone curious enough to dive in with two hours of Exai? Or is this album selling to people like me, who buy Autechre music unheard, assuming it’s going to continue to do for them what it has always done? I always wonder these things when the group releases a new album.

Autechre probably really doesn’t care.

Is there really any proper way to describe the music that Autechre makes? Could my description possibly mean anything to you? Autechre’s music is a Rorschach test of sorts; the audio equivalent of staring at patterns and discerning familiar shapes. If I hear tractor engines being chewed up to the beat of clanging metal pipes over a choir of stumbling angels, well, is that truly what you’ll hear? I can’t point to a great riff or a rockin’ beat. It’s organized forms of noise, sometimes chaotic, sometimes beautiful, often at the same time. It would make the perfect soundtrack to watching robots build more robots.

To their credit, the duo of Sean Booth & Rob Brown that makes up Autechre never betray a personality behind its music. There’s no telling who did what. So it’s kind of like there’s no ego at play here. What you hear is what the pair felt was truly best for the music, and that’s kind of amazing. Name another act where the group’s individual contributions are so perfectly meshed that nothing in the music tips its hat toward one member or the other.

In most music, this kind of anonymity would be a detriment, but Autechre paints the kind of abstracted picture in which an overwhelming presence of personality would be detract from the experience. That abstraction takes a lot of flak for being as nonmusical as their song titles are nonsensical. What comes across as random stabs at keyboards and thrown together beats still has a strangely compelling nature. Sure, sometimes it sounds like a pile of tools tumbling down an echoey stairwell, but those beats lurch and tumble toward each other in a weirdly sensible fashion. The audience for this music is, however, admittedly small.

For those of us who have found something to latch onto in Autechre’s music, I have to wonder if it’s something similar. It can’t be dancing, despite their affiliation with the IDM genre (“intelligent dance music,” if you’re not familiar). No, dancing would likely result in something along the lines of Elaine Benes’ dance in that episode of Seinfeld: anti-rhythmic jerking about and awkward finger pointing. The beat shifts frequently and without warning, or disappears all together to make way for soundscapes. Sometimes the beat isn’t a beat at all but a congregation of noise, or distortion. It’s up to you: what is the beat? Find the beat!

The jokes on me: “recks on” finds that beat for you, with that so frequently heard, ultra-heavy snare sample (whether it’s truly from “When The Levee Breaks” or not, I can’t tell you) and rumbling bass line, it’s almost club-ready … for a bit. And then it shifts mid-track, typical of Autechre, and becomes a much more ethereal piece. It’s a standout because it’s so different. In the middle of the crazy beauty of skittering, clipping noises and washes of things that kinda-sorta sound like strings or horns or drunken washing machines comes this simple stonker. And yet it’s still not simple because the beats still double up on themselves, trip over each other, and confuse you occasionally. It’s an oasis of simplicity only by association.

That’s the key. Autechre’s music is a puzzle. The music I have returned to most often throughout my life has been the music that has allowed me to drift thoughtfully through it. Like I mentioned earlier, I hear the sound of things in their music. An engine, tools, pipes, angels. I don’t know exactly how they make their music, but I suspect it involves very little in the way of manipulating real-world sources. I kind of like it this way. Knowing the process might spoil some of the enjoyment for me. In the end, does it really matter. Deep down I know it’s all homemade software and archaic synths, but there’s something beautiful about pretending that it’s all made from microphones rubbing up against chocolate cake, or alarm clocks set on fire and tossed into pools.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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