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Music Review: Autechre – Exai

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Autechre’s new double-CD Exai is their 11th recording for the Warp label. It is a little hard to believe that it has been 20 years since their debut, Incunabula (1993), as they remain one of the most adventurous and exciting groups in electronic music. The 17 tracks that make up Exai recall just about every direction the duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth have pursued over the years. Unlike so many others though, Autechre never sound as if they are repeating themselves.

In many ways, Autechre’s career has paralleled my interest in electronic music. Their first two albums, Incunabula and Amber (1994) were near-perfect expressions of what has been called “ambient techno,” or “IDM” (Intelligent Dance Music). Frankly, it is a difficult genre to describe, and I know that most artists hate those labels. Whatever one wishes to call it, maybe the easiest way to reference their music is to mention other acts who mine a similar territory. The Orb, Aphex Twin, and early Moby come to mind. What Autechre do best is to create sculptures out of sound. It is a form of music that I find irresistible.

Exai opens with “Fleure,” which sets the tone for the following two hours. The album does revisit the ambient aspects of their earlier works, but not on “Fleure.” This track has much more in common with their more dissonant side, which was first heard on their third effort, Tri-Repetae (1995). I must admit that I was initially a little shocked with Tri-Repetae, but it grew on me. The fast-paced percussion of “Fleure” is a bit disconcerting, but the melody underneath is very enticing.

This tendency is even more pronounced on the second track, “irlite (get 0).” As you may have noticed, Autechre favor odd spellings and titles, and always have. Nevertheless, “irlite (get 0)” has a much more pronounced beat than “Fleure,” and utilizes a method best termed as the “drop-out.” In this and other songs, their Morse-code delivery method leaves the listener free to fill in the blanks as they wish.

Frank Zappa’s famous comment “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has never been truer than it is with Autechre, and with Exai in particular. Many of the songs are so abstract as to defy easy categorization. By the time we reach track three, “prac-f,” the direction they are taking is highly percussive. Then comes the gorgeous, chilled-out tones of “Tess xi,” and all bets are off. No matter what, Autechre will not be pinned down to one style or format. It is a trait about them that I have always admired, and another reason that this set holds together so well.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a form of hip-hop that traded the militancy of Public Enemy and NWA for something quite different. Two bands that epitomized this were De La Soul and PM Dawn. With “Tess xi,” Autechre visit that territory in their own inimitable style. It is a almost as if they have taken De La Soul’s classic “Saturdays” and remixed it for themselves. All of the trademark percussive effects are intact, but when overlaid on such an inviting piece of music, the effect is magic. It is yet another side of the eclecticism that makes this Manchester duo so intriguing.

Disc two of Exai ventures even deeper into the ambient realm. The opening “11 is” really sealed it for me. In listening to the beautiful melody, I racked my brain trying to place what it reminded me of, and then it hit me. One of the most overlooked records I know of was Every Man & Woman Is a Star (1992) by Ultramarine. While nothing Autechre have ever done could be considered an imitation, it can be useful to reference other artists when describing their music. The open vistas of “Discovery” or “British Summertime” on Every Man could be considered a starting point for what Autechre create during “11 is.”

Although the music of Autechre is almost exclusively instrumental, they occasionally utilize wordless vocals. One example of this is “deco Loc,”, but that is only one relatively minor component of this powerful track. Even though Industrial bands such as Ministry and KMFDM incorporate a lot of electronic instrumentation, their music has never been considered IDM, or whatever one wishes to call it. “deco Loc” is as heavily “industrial” as I have ever heard Autechre get, and is a killer track.

Appropriately enough, Exai concludes with the most mysterious tune on the album. Once again they defy any attempt at reading a meaning into the title with “YJY UX,” but that is the least of the ambiguity of this 8:25 piece. Much like the entire two-disc set, “YJY UX” could be considered a musical journey, one in which Autechre displays the wide variety of sonic ingredients they use to such impressive effect.

Electronic music of this sort is never going to cross over in a big way, but it did once, back at the turn of the millennium. Radiohead’s Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) may have seemed to come out of the blue to their fans, but for those of us who had been listening to Autechre, the music was quite familiar. Kid A sent me back to the glorious tones of Amber, and remains my favorite Radiohead recording.

The “blips” that the duo have added to their music over the years are present throughout Exai, and may be the most off-putting aspect to would-be fans. There is no denying the fact that the cacophonous sound will get your attention. Coupled with the ambient textures that they are so adept at, they create music unlike anyone else. I must say that the two-hour, 17-song Exai is as good as anything I have ever heard by them. 20 years on, it is hard to believe that they are still making not only relevant, but deeply challenging music.

Having listened to Exai a few times now, I see that great care has been taken in programming the set. I am not quite prepared to call Exai Autechre’s all-time best, but it is definitely a contender. I can say without a doubt though that it will stand as one of my top picks of 2013.

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