Autechre — SIGN

The music critics of Data.Wave, Andrew McKenzie, Darren McClure and Nick Zavriev review the new album of Autechre.

there is nothing in the idea of a 'product' that tells us half as much as when there is mis-direction, and as all great magicians profess and exemplify, we are not to be told. preferably ever. why? because it is actually the least important part of the entire ritual. the immediate demand to know after a trick *appears* to have concluded shows us (mostly about ourselves - although we might insist that it concerns others) that we will not allow awe and suspension of disbelief to rest without disturbance, and the evidence of our senses is not that which we are prepared to trust - always preferring external verification before we can file away the experience. to be able to hold contradictions without resolution is the mark of a certain development, and aids for this practice are few and far between. and here we have one. a world-view presented by the act of setting forth acts of creation into the public arena means a possibility of entering this, and the terms are dictated precisely; because to truly experience the local conditions, a certain amount of letting go of touristic assumptions must take place. any resistance felt is a symptom that indicates where effort must be extended. "SIGN" does not allow ease except on a superficial level, and what seem to be familiar indications of direction and location are at worst obscurations and at best mirages... as well as there being the possibility that they are, in fact, sleight-of-hand carried out right in front of us. not being the place, the labels are disintegrated in a seemingly impossible fashion, and carpets and tablecloths are whipped out from underneath a large collection of objects (again, including ourselves), and disbelief should be the least of our worries. please note that magicians call what they do "effects" and not "tricks," and I have no doubt (even if I should) that this is the case with "SIGN." my favorite magical acts are those a) where the effect happens inside the audience and not outside, and b) when an explanation is given, but it is in fact, yet another part of the effect. but best of all, is when there is no trick but appears to be: after all, the saying goes, that "magicians guard an empty safe." the emptiness in that safe is what we can be granted access to if we meet the designer of the safe on their own terms, and then we may come to realise how valuable that space truly is.

Since their eleventh album Exai back in 2013, Autechre’s releases have grown in length exponentially and they’ve experimented with format and presentation along the way. Exai at the time was seen as an extended work, a double album clocking in at two hours. This was taken a step further when the duo released elseq 1-5, a digital only series of work that immersed listeners in four hours of music. All of which was completely dwarfed by their NTS Sessions, a four-part series that initially was broadcast on the radio over the month of April in 2018 before a proper release, and amounting to eight hours. Adding over thirty hours of live soundboard recordings to that list, there has been an ocean of material to get lost in.

So now with their new release SIGN, Autechre have taken a step back and issued an album that is a mere 65 minutes in length and finds the pair approaching their sound with a laser-like focus on tracks that are succinct instead of sprawling. Those previous releases over the last seven years often dealt in deconstructed beats and abstracted rhythms, a path the pair have specialized in over their long career. SIGN departs from this with a suite of eleven tracks where drums often take a back seat, and when present give a sense of propulsion without overtaking the melodies at work. The only track to allow their trademark beat-mangling to get really wild is the album opener M4 Lema, which begins with sparks of electronics and crackling feedback that instantly recalls the intro to

Cipater, the opening track on their fourth album Chiastic Slide. M4 Lema deals in heavily distressed rhythms that defy dancing, serving more as a convulsing framework to suspend gorgeous pads that blow through like an autumn breeze. A more conventional beat is slowly tapped out as the track progresses, but never getting in the way of those synth swells that give SIGN an emotional punch that permeates throughout the rest of the album. It sets the tone immediately: this is going to be Autechre pulling at the heartstrings.

F7 dispenses with beats altogether, as many other tracks do here. To my ears it recalls the baroque beauty of Oversteps, their album from a decade ago that took a detour from intricate drums and let their prowess at melody enjoy the spotlight. F7 consists of angular FM synth stabs, an asymmetric pattern of bent harpsichord harmonies. Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown can conjure some of the most haunting, heartfelt melodies when they want to, and SIGN finds them really indulging in this more than any other of their records from the last decade. But these aren’t just exercises in slow-moving pads. There are weird, cutting-edge textures here, and serious low-end frequencies, like on si00, where a bubbly, aquatic ping-pong melody is washed over in cascades of speaker-worrying swells.

Many tracks, as mentioned, are strictly synth-only pieces, such as esc desc, which manages to sound melancholy and optimistic at exactly the same time, and the mesmerizing Metaz form8 which mashes light tones and darker keys into a widescreen cinematic soundscape that buzzes around the stereo field for exactly six minutes. The tracks that do deploy beats in a more upfront way still pack enough punch that stops SIGN being Autechre’s ambient LP. au14 throws lopsided kicks and snares into an echo-space in which rubbery melodies try to chase and adhere to the beats. Played loud on speakers, this track has a ton of weight, as does schmefd 2, a standout track for me. A sizzling underlying beat almost implies its rhythm than overtly shows it. On top of this are twisted melodic synths, the fabric of which are as experimental as anything Autechre have done in their more mind-melting stuff. Again, a weight is imbued to these synths that really showcase the duo’s expertise in modern sound design; this is a master class in exquisite production all wrapped up in melodies that go straight to the feels.

The latter half of the album consists of a sequence of tracks that are all beatless, apart from psin AM which has a steady 4/4 muffled kick that wouldn’t sound out of place on a GAS record. Of these tracks, th red a is the only one that doesn’t work so well for me. The repetitions don’t evoke enough of a zoned-out headspace, and I found them to overstay their welcome pretty quickly, although in its defense it still contains some nice chord progressions and tones.

The final track on the album might be one of the most unashamedly emotional things I’ve ever heard produced by Autechre. r cazt rides out its duration in minimal, harmonic beauty, lush brushstrokes of synths that soar high into the sky, the melodic lines often recalling some of the most poignant moments from LP5. r cazt is music to listen to with closed eyes and let it take you to imaginary spaces that glow and glitter. Again, as elsewhere on this record, it sounds both sad and happy at the same time, and when it abruptly ends, the silence of the listening environment is almost deafening.

With SIGN, Autechre have succeeded in reinventing themselves by exercising restraint. It’s a bold move, after years of longer track durations and ever more abstract, complex music. This new release embraces, if not simplicity exactly, then definitely warmth and emotion. It feels refreshing. Where a lot of the duo’s material over the last few years has been quite cerebral, this album feels more from and to the heart. Is this a surprising release? Maybe, but whatever our expectations or hopes for new Autechre music were, this album feels like the record we need in 2020, after the year that it’s been.

It would seem that the main quality that allows Autechre to keep their status as a legend for the third decade in a row is their ability to surprise at a moment when it looks like no one expects anything from them anymore. The same thing happened with Oversteps a little more than ten years ago when Sean and Rob seemed to have completely plunged into the depths of underground sound design. And it is happening yet again, when before SIGN, the musicians have been bombarding their audience with hours-long records where one would be hard-pressed to find anything human, as if the entire process of composing had been long automated, and the music has been made by algorithms and neural networks instead of by Brown and Booth themselves. The main sensation, when it comes to SIGN consists in the fact that this album yet again features music in the traditional meaning of this word, even if it is still persistently complex and avant-garde-like in a few places. It feels like Elseq 1-5, NTS Sessions and many hours of concert recordings were only released to emphasize the contrast. If it is so, the strategy was completely justified, SIGN sounds like a revelation indeed. The percussion (both in terms of timbre and patterns) seems to continue the line of the latest "designer" recordings, but the melodic structure sends us somewhere back to the time of the classic albums. The first track M4 Lema with its saddened pads is reminiscent of the ambience from Garbage EP, yet its background rustling and crunching reminds us of something from Chiastic Slide, and on top of that, there are some borderline inexplicable hidden planes and events. Strange but brightly expressed melodies of F7 and si00 in their turn make us remember LP5 and the track Acroyear2. Overall, the avant-garde Autechre only reminds us of itself by the fifth composition, only for the wavy path to lead us to ambient and sad IDM yet again. There seem to be no direct connections to the album "Oversteps”, and at the same time, "SIGN" follows primarily in its footsteps. It is all mainly about that very combination of complexity (convoluted harmonies and non-obvious melodic moves) and musicality. It is approximately how early free jazz functioned: everything might seem completely alogical, yet it is still easy to follow the line of events. Can SIGN be called an "old-school record"? Probably yes. There is a lot more of "regaining shape" here than desire to push your limits even further. But in the case of such artists as Autechre and Aphex Twin, this is the best of compliments. Besides, this is by no means repeating the past, but rather an attempt at developing an abandoned branch that didn't get its continuation during its own time.