Graded on a Curve: Autechre, Exai

It certainly seems more than feasible that veteran electronic duo Autechre subscribe to the notion that Too Much is Never Enough. Over twenty-plus years the pair’s discography has revealed them to be, amongst other things, determined sonic maximalists, with EPs that are longer than many full-length albums. Their latest Exai reinforces this aspect of their development with a vengeance, clocking in at just a smidge over two hours long across a physical release that necessitates two compact discs and four vinyl LPs. Many will find its entirety to be exhausting, but if sprawling and somewhat unwieldy in its scope, Exai is loaded with interesting ideas and finds Autechre in strong, if not peak, form.

Like many, the first taste of Autechre for this writer came through the compilation Artificial Intelligence, issued in 1992 by Warp Records and given a stateside pressing the following year via Wax Trax. That disc’s cover art featured an android sleeping in an armchair with copies of Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd LPs lying on the floor beside it, the image making a humorous but fairly clear statement about the purpose of the music included therein; it was intended for sit-down listening rather than specifically for booty-shaking.

That’s not to say that much of Artificial Intelligence’s contents couldn’t accompany an undulating tail-feather. Indeed, I’d feel safe in betting that “Crystel,” one of two Autechre tracks found on the record, moved many a crowd in the club-setting around the time of its appearance. But Warp’s point about the music’s function was well taken; if early techno was designed to soundtrack the activities of a subculture, Artificial Intelligence helped spearhead a movement in electronica that was decidedly more cerebral and at times abstract in its function.

And Autechre’s Rob Brown and Sean Booth have been a major force in art techno since its beginnings, issuing all of their music (with the exception of two early 12-inches, one under the excellent name Lego Feet) via Warp and remaining active and relevant as many of their peers fell by the wayside through a lack of production or a diminishment of talent.

They’ve achieved this staying power through growth while retaining a consistent personality on record. This is all the more impressive due to their music’s reliance upon and distillation of pure sound (that is, there were no vocalists wielding lyrics to assist them in establishing their own “voice.”) Particularly in the 1990s, Autechre were at the forefront of innovation in electronic music, and as the entries in their discography progressed, they cultivated an experimental streak that caused some of the duo’s early followers to lose interest as it simultaneously attracted new listeners into the fold.

Indeed, there was a big shake-up in direction attached to 2001’s Confield, with the contents of that release essentially stretching the ties to the dance music that spawned them right up to the breaking point, though Brown and Booth were in fact more preoccupied with the concept of rhythm than ever before. It’s just that their approach had become abstract to the point that sedentary listening was really the only way to fully engage with the work.

Yes, folks partial to Incunabula or Amber were likely to consider much of Confield as simply a bunch of racket, and new fans would be just as apt to hold the general accessibility of the early material at some distance. And so another interesting aspect in Autechre’s development relates to how it progressed in a manner inverse to the norm.

While there are plenty of exceptions, the vast majority of artists working in any field (and in music in particular) deliver their most progressive statements fairly early on and then either streamline them as time marches forward via maturity or reject them outright as age tangles with the encroaching bugaboo of conservatism. Had the pair’s post-Confield material hit the marketplace unattached to the visibility of and respect accorded to the Autechre name, it seems fairly certain it would’ve gathered a far more niche audience.

However, if restless in their experimentation, they’ve still retained a focus and a unique sound that can’t help but remind this correspondent of some of the more “serious” rock music that preceded them; I’m thinking specifically of early Floyd and especially ‘70s Kraftwerk, the referencing of those acts on Artificial Intelligence obviously promoting what’s ultimately a rather lazy association.

But it its unified, disciplined expressiveness Autechre’s body of work also feels linked to the ambient work of Eno and holds similarities to the stuff that was springing forth from the post-rock field during the same period; it’s not a bit surprising that Autechre remixed Tortoise on a 1998 7-inch.

Another element of consistency in Autechre’s growth relates to the generous running-times of their stuff; all of the pair’s full-albums clock in at more than an hour in span. Opinions have been divided over this more-is-more aspect in their narrative, but with their eleventh release Exai, Brown and Booth deliver a document that nearly doubles the individual durations of the previous ten, and in so doing basically guarantees a polarized reaction.

For Exai blatantly stretches the very idea of a full-length record. To be sure, Autechre came of age in a period where the possibilities of extended running-times provided by CDs inspired more than a few acts (Autechre obviously included) to issue discs that in the previous era would’ve been 2LP sets, and frequently were just that when given a vinyl pressing. And all-in-all that wasn’t a big deal, though many a ‘90s-era release could’ve benefited from some editing.

In the last decade or so the pendulum has swung back toward records with shorter running times that are more in keeping with the classic LP, often clocking in at less than thirty minutes. It seems the reason at least in part can be chalked up to the digital portability of the current age, with individuals carrying all or part of their music collections with them wherever they go, squeezing in listening while exercising, during lunch breaks or study sessions and through commutes. The average length of new releases has apparently simply adjusted to the trend.

As pioneers of electronic music, Autechre are far from technological luddites. In reference to their ’08 record Quaristice, Booth has stated that the actual product is the FLAC-file. There is no reason to think the duo feel differently about Exai. But if fully embracing the new technology, they seem to have simultaneously dived headlong into the creation of a huge sonic canvas that’s at significant odds with the current listening culture. Actually, scratch that; two hour long records have been outside the norms of essentially any listening culture.

But there doesn’t seem to be any agenda attached to Exai’s two hours other than an unflagging dedication to the creation of immense soundscapes. Technically this isn’t even their longest release; the ’95 album Tri Repetae was issued on CD in the US with a second disc comprising the Garbage and Anvil Vapre EPs as Tri Repetae++, its length totaling over two hours and twenty-eight minutes. But Tri Repetae++ was a very long album with an equally long bonus disc. Had the digital means been available to them earlier in their career, it’s very possible that many of those EPs would’ve been attached to albums proper, increasing their size and subsequently turning Exai’s grandness into nothing particularly unusual, at least in terms of Autechre’s output. But of course that’s all conjecture.

What is quite concrete however is that much of Exai is substantially harsher than Quaristice or 2010’s Oversteps. Those previous works, if continuing to explore abstraction, were distinguished by a user-friendliness that even had some folks comparing Oversteps to Amber.

While there are moments of accessibility on Exai, specifically the ambiance of the first half of “T ess xi,” the restless yet very engaging “tuinorizn,” the extended iciness of “bladelores,” and especially “recks on,” a track that possesses a slamming hip-hop beat that provides a welcome breath of crisp late-album air, Exai’s whole is considerably formidable.

And in the end the whole is the only way to evaluate this latest Autechre release. Some early reports have proposed that much of what’s here could’ve used some trimming, though after listening to the tracks individually I’m not so sure. But after approaching them separately for faults they must then be evaluated together and Exai at this early juncture has shaped up as quite a challenge.

That’s in no way a bad thing. Similar to a formally-daring epic film or a linguistically-complex 1,000 page-plus novel, Exai commands esteem even as it resists being engaged with on a casual, everyday level. And it may fall short of the level of masterpiece, but not by much. And like great works of art, it’s likely that Exai’s true value will only be revealed over time.

After clearing the often cluttered schedule of daily life and focusing the attention to give it numerous full listens, the verdict is that Exai holds a surplus of very good, occasionally superb material, with its total shaping up as a massive and thorny object thrown into a contemporary music scene that’s increasingly dominated by ease and adaptability.

It may not prove to be their best work, but it doesn’t miss the top-tier by much. But after reflection, it’s in how Autechre actually make demands on the modern listener that ultimately finds them so deserving of respect so deep into their career.


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