With their 11th album, Exai, AUTECHRE again create their very own psycho-acoustic galaxy, one of their most scenic ever, built by breathtaking immersive and dynamic soundscapes that are populated by morphing heavy beat mutations.
From the beginning of their now over twenty years counting collaboration as AUTECHRE Manchester based Sean Booth and Rob Brown rank among the most adventurous, influential and – since 2001 – controversial producers of advanced electronic music. Rooted in early hip hop, b-boy culture and warehouse rave, and highly influenced by industrial monument COIL, their working with algorithmic composition and digital sound design made them not only one of the Warp label mainstays but also main figures both relevant to the psychedelic research field of electroacoustics/ambient/drone and to club cultures body politics… always avid for and with great pleasure in deconstructing all the rules and genres spooking through these institutions.
So after milestones like LP5 (1998), Draft 7.30 (2003) and Untilted (2005), and 3 years of absence it maybe was no accident that shortly after the link to the activated Exai-download-link circulated Warps online music store “Bleep” collapsed. Now the 17-storeyed monstrosity is available in both double CD format and as 4-LP vinyl.
Again AUTECHRE come out with a mind-blowing sonic mutant created by a rhythmical, soundwise and dramaturgic ingenuity that is without equal and that requires you not only to listen to it isolated and, well, loud! But also in the maximum of your intentness and vigour – and endurance if you decide to undertake the whole two-hour-trip.
But Exai is not only absolutely challenging. It also is very inviting and tempting as AUTECHRE have achieved a new balance between accessibility und experimentalism: On the one hand we have melodious fragments and historical hints, AUTECHRE‘s very own signature sounds and beats with a scene-connected basic form. On the other hand they are working with divers techniques of sound- / rhythm- / room-morphing / fragmenting / -pullulating, making the unfolding scenes incredibly dense and eclectic, and the rhythmic so complex that it’s hard to sync and merge in the triggered body completely (in this regard AUTECHRE are playing in the first league together with a few others such as RYOJI IKEDA, ALVA NOTO, NHK and KEIICHIRO SHIBUYA). Next to staggering and stumbling yet incredibly grooving beat structures (reminding of GRISCHA LICHTENBERGER at his best) there are wounded glitch hop beasts and crunk pumping tech-step mutants the whole lot of them are constructed so subtle and delicate that it hurts to get sucked into. For our club-socialised bodies it truely is a kinaesthetically ecstatic experience of liminality and at times a relentless trip of sensomotoric self-deconstruction.
Supplementary the listener will be guided through a variety of mental states (some may call it emotions) that are evoked by the highly immersive and invasive sound design. At this point it has to be said that Exai is AUTECHRE‘s most sinister sounding album yet. So the somatically transgressing moments quite often take place in dense and virtually cinematographic scenarios of almost kafkaesque impression with at times psychotic impact (reminding of ONI AYHUN at his darkest), unfolding dystopian (at the end of the album downright MIKA VAINIO-esque) soulscapes that are haunted by menacing effects playing with the hallucinatory modes of pre- and absence. Here the digitally processed sounds of futurity don’t signify a promising hyper-modernity, but rather ominous looming incidents plotted by eerie tone colours and dissonances, spooky noises, glitches and voices (vekoS).
In another way and understood as an aesthetical intervention into the present age disturbing tracks like runreplik or the neuronal highly challenging spl9 appear as neuro-aesthetical preparatory programs to counterstrikes against ‘the sonic militarization of London’ – analysed by Steve Goodman, former lecturer at the University of East London and better known as HYPERDUB label founder KODE9 who published the highly absorbing book ‘Sonic Warfare: sound, affect & the ecology of fear’ in 2009.
Beside this dark plain (or within) you’ll also find pieces of sonic beauty – so in Fleure and the BOK BOK-like heavy crunk hard-hitting jatevee C or the perforated house keyboard of T ess xi – as well as moments of transcendent sublimity – centred in the middle of the album, built by a PANTHA DU PRINCE-ish bell work amidst a CHRIS CLARK-esque mountain chain or by the mystifying choir(!)-sample(?)/-simulating(?) sound in bladelores (AUTECHRE‘s genealogically deepest dive to date).
Their narrative sense Booth and Brown are acting out in irlite (get 0), where a worming bass and a shimmering synth-beauty are running through diverse moods from nervous playfulness over fear and yearning into a jazz-dramatic final. Next to it there are broken beat-driven electro-acoustic scenarios such as prac-f and tuinorizn that I’ll be not the only one who’d kill or die for listening this arranged in a 16 channel surround sound club. And while Flep fascinates with six so damn funky minutes of purest swirl and twirly sound- / beat- / room-processing, in the eerie ambience of cloudline there revive so deep grooving soul moments last felt maybe in a track by JAMES BLAKE.
It’s obvious: AUTECHRE are into Retromania as it is described by Simon Reynolds in the most-talked about book about music in 2011 – ‘Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past’. But in difference to the reactionary identity-fixed nostalgia which is complacently nestling into one or more ages in order to snatch moments of uplifting authenticity AUTECHRE are crossing disparate genres and ages in a way that unveils the resurgence as a broken, ambiguous and blurred one that defies control. The access to the historical archive, to the unconscious and to one’s own memories and influences is not a sovereign but ruptured one revealing the past as an erie, recalcitrant insisting process. With this approach AUTECHRE have to be seen and heard in a conceptual neighbourhood to hypnagogic and hauntological artists such as HYPE WILLIAMS, to PHILIP JECK and WILLIAM BASINSKI just as ARIEL PINK, JOHN MAUS and KRIA BREKKAN.
At the same time Exai soundwise often moves in the orbit of Quaristice (2008) with its scenic and dramatic surroundings. But rhythmically it’s characterised by those morphing heavy beat constructions AUTECHRE explored in their previous phase on Draft 7.30 (2003) and Untilted (2005). So with their extensive and varied use of diverse synths and sound processing methods in combination with a post-everything drum programming they produced an immense album that is body-driving sound art at its peak.
Ever since their first algorithmic-based longplayer Confield (2001) AUTECHRE have polarised the scene of advanced electronic music. And Exai will be no exception to this. There will be many for whom the sound characteristics, the structural and rhythmical idiosyncrasies of this album and especially its genre-crossing character will be disconcerting. But for those of you who will manage to become infected with it, even if it takes a couple of solitary nights, there will be – when they are back on earth – no doubt that finally and with a view to the evolution of electronic music this album will rank among the most important of the decade.