Sean Booth and Rob Brown, the former b-boys who've become icons to countless geeks-cum-laptop-jockeys (and also the lads in Radiohead), have, over the course of their two-decade-plus partnership as the dance-floor obscurantists known as Autechre, shorn their music of the usual techno conventions (obvious 4/4, melodies, etc.) to the point of abstraction. The results can offer little purchase to both neophytes and longtime followers: music which shrugs off listeners' attempts at immediate emotional access, especially since much of it sounds like all the drum machines ever made malfunctioning at the same time.
So, for the last three or four studio albums, I've been trying to gain access into Autechre's impenetrable monolith of sound with ever diminishing enthusiasm, waiting futilely for the proverbial Return to Form, but to little avail. Instead, Autechre have released whole albums worth of fractured beats engineered to an uncompromisingly flat hiss with frenetic software effects that may or may not have anything to do with each other. Granted, Quaristice and Oversteps saw Booth and Brown moving away from such static-y harshness, but both of these efforts were composed of dissociated noodling that lacked the catchiness of vintage '90s Autechre.
And yet, as almost a statistical mean of their recent output comes Exai, their 11th album, a rangy double disc that melds nearly every impulse they've had in the last 15 years, and I'll be damned if it doesn't let in some of that old charm, like Chiastic Slide or LP5, only reprocessed on equipment that's benefitted from technological progress. Even if that sounds ominous to fans of Autechre's first three albums, in which analog synths ruled, Booth and Brown have taken a catholic approach to Exai, catering to almost every aspect of their sound.
The dual aesthetic impulses (difficult and melodious) are signaled from the very title of the first track, "Fleure," which has the rare-for-Autechre distinction of being an actual word (albeit in a different language), yet from the opening seconds sounds like an outtake from Untilted with all of its scoured beats that recall a high-speed scraping of glass. The infusion of Autechre classicism comes about two minutes into the following track, "irlite (get 0)," where the churning percussive morass doesn't relent, but lifts enough to let wobbly melodies filter up through the thick to be joined with brassy stabs. At certain moments, it sounds like Afrika Bambaataa on a laptop loaded with the latest DSP softsynths. This sonic template is the modus operandi for "jatevee C" as well: a soggy hovercar flight right out of Blade Runner, except through the smog-choked dystopian haze, some simulacrum of blue skies is visible.
With "Tess xi," though, Booth and Brown offer something that could fit right onto Chiastic Slide, wherein crunchy beats and muted notes coexist in aloof admiration—and not the naked contempt between the two that characterizes, say, Untilted. Other old habits get dusted off, too, as "recks on," with breakbeats simultaneously fat and digitally orthogonal, demonstrates their not-so-secret desire of becoming the Bomb Squad of robots (a yen last making an appearance on "V-Proc," from Draft 7.30). In fact, sometimes the self-referential touches are nearly direct references, as the beginning of "1 1 is" recalls the intro of "Krib" (from the Cichlisuite EP). But instead of nursery chimes, throbbing effects set the stage before the track entirely twists itself into a more menacing, funkier electro-cousin.
Exai's stars are the pair of tracks that stand like sentinels to close each CD. The second disc ends with "YJY UX," a moody ambient number, a tantalizing probing of space both sonic (a lot of deep emptiness in the mix, with different elements exquisitely separated in the arrangement) and physical (tinkling satellite beeps floating alongside groaning bass lines) that suddenly blinks out just as it flies past the range of transmission. While "YJY UX" is an eerie and unsettling track, its fraternal twin at the end of the first disc, the monumental "bladelores," towers over not just the rest of Exai, but arguably over anything that Autechre has released since the '90s. Far from the jagged throes of crumbling drum machines that are the assaultive hallmarks of past Autechre album closers, "bladelores" presents a smooth edifice, a beast of mechanical lurching hand-in-hand with swirling, cinematic synth strings. It's a balance of sweetness and stately indifference, a Booth/Brown signature which few other acts (SAWII-era Aphex Twin, and maybe fin-de-siécle Boards of Canada) can manage as nimbly. In the midst of typically challenging music, it's an outright gift to listeners.
As many knockoffs as they've inspired, Autechre remains a sui generis act, and comparisons with contemporaries or descendants are often less useful in orienting their listeners than using Booth and Brown's own past work as a lodestar. Exai represents a career-spanning work, one that encapsulates almost every phase of their evolving aesthetic, and whether you're a fan of their early work or their recent output, it stands as a remarkable synthesis that coheres only through the deftness of its sonic architects.