Review: Autechre – Exai
Published on March 6th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Synaesthetically speaking, Autechre have traditionally been one of those rare artists to deal more with shapes than with colours or textures. Even early-to-mid-’90s albums like Amber are best described in terms of architecture and landscapes – sonic blueprints, diagrams, that kind of thing – and for all that their music is difficult it has always been fascinating in its ability to elicit near-uniform descriptive grasps from those bold/foolish enough to tackle it.
“What on Earth is Rocksucker banging on about?” you may very reasonably ask. Well, take a look at Drowned in Sound’s review of Exai – see those words midway through the second paragraph? Yep: “architecture and landscapes”. You’ll have to take our word for it that we’d already drawn up our notes on this two-hour double album prior to cross-referencing their write-up of it, and presumably there was no clairvoyance on their part.
It is merely a coincidence, except of course that it is not a coincidence at all: the sounds made by Sean Booth and Rob Brown are resoundingly not for everyone, but they undeniably resonate with a very particular part of the brain. Their approach dictates that they will never in a million years score the kind of epochal, singalong hit that you might associate with, say, Oasis – but it makes them a damn sight more interesting to interpret and review.
Take Exai opener “FLeure”, which is not quite as delicate as its title suggests, being as it is a clunking, metallic madness of pinging percussive elements and squelching, irritated-sounding – yes, irritated-sounding! – synth bass. You can’t sing along to it, sure, but nor can you discover a new plane of existence in “Wonderwall”, unless of course you actually are on drugs, in which case you shouldn’t be listening to Oasis anyway.
Are we the first site to make multiple mentions of Oasis in a review of an Autechre album? Bet we are.
“irlite (get 0)”, like much of Autechre’s work, will sound positively random at first (random in the true sense of the word rather than the ubiquitous misappropriation of our age), but go in for a closer ‘look’ and you’ll discover the design to be almost impossibly intricate. It’s just so frenzied and has little time for such earthly concerns as melodies and structure – heck, it *is* a structure, one which if transported into the physical realm would probably be some sort of robotic Gaudi affair. Plinky plonky synth notes flutter about devoid of direction, before the whole thing bubbles up and out, re-emerging with sinister string notes and a beehive of electronics.
Then something even stranger happens: Exai takes a turn for the poppier! We’re talking in relative terms of course, for it would be considered abstract experimentation (and perhaps even signs of madness) if it came from almost any other group – but the tangible, bouncy rhythm of “prac-f” feels positively commercial in this setting, at least until it proceeds to get lost in clutter.
“jatevee C” takes another step towards Lady Gaga (joke) by concealing some analogue synth lushness amidst its more abrasive elements, and when the ensuing “T ess xi” grants precedence to some ambient chords it starts to feel as if there’s an inner Richard D. James Album trying to get out. However, this notion is promptly dampened and then full-on extinguished by “vekoS” and “Flep” respectively, leading us back as they do into the dark, squiggly shape-generating of before.
How do Autechre decide on song titles? Are they captchas or something? Anyway, “bladelores” chuffs, squiggles and scrapes along on its peculiar ‘slow train’ gait, taking on a swell of ambient background synth and making for a vaguely unsettling listen. At twelve minutes it’s the longest track of the set, although it is one of three to go over ten minutes, and one of eleven to go over six minutes. We already mentioned that this is a long album, so don’t act surprised.
Exai continues to induce stone-cold-sober hallucinations: “1 1 is” is a slapping, dragging thing, as if it had no legs and was using its hands to propel itself forward on a skateboard… “nodezsh” sounds like some alien game of Whac-A-Mole… the rhythm section of “runrepik” sounds as if it’s being operated by a hyperactive child, with gurgling, squiggling electronics flying around it… while “spl9” presumably has nothing to do with the Scottish Premier League, as much of a brilliant headfuck as it would be to see this stomping lunacy soundtracking their live coverage instead of Ronan Keating or whatever guff they currently use. If they do that, we’ll become Hearts fans.
“cloudline” fires screeching noises up through a wibbly sort of not-quite-two-step, click-clacking percussive elements filling out the mix, before the thwomping, shuddering K-hole of “deco loc” and ‘hip-hop track being ambushed by malevolent synth’ of “recks on” offer diverting stops on the way to oddly mesmerising curtain-closer “YJY UX”, which starts raining felty glowworms of synth as a big synth bass buzzes angrily underneath, as if being awoken from deep slumber by this shower. It seems to fall away, then claws at you with one more icy jab of synth…and then it’s all over. After two hours of intense, scientific lunacy, it’s all over.
Relieved? Maybe a little. Impressed? Not half. Goodness knows if we’ll ever last Exai‘s particular course again, but our perception of life and the universe can only be enriched for having done so. While caution is most certainly advised, it would feel churlish to give this any less than…
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
Exai is out now on Warp Records. For more information, please visit www.autechre.info
As a rare postscript, here is a baby listening to “FLeure”…