Has it really been seven years since Autechre – Rob Brown and Sean Booth – released their last studio album ‘Exai’? Sadly, the answer is yes.
The intervening years the world has changed dramatically. Almost to the point where if someone in 2013 saw what was going to happen, they might call this the darkest timeline. While I enjoyed their music, I didn’t click with them 100% until 2008’s metal slipcased ‘Quaristice’ was released. Then I went back and re-listened to them, as if for the first time. I was captivated not only by the scope of their soundscapes but the emotional textures they created. Their new album ‘SIGN’ doesn’t sound like the Autechre I first experienced as an awkward teen. Initially is feels less dynamic. There is less moving, but it feels like their most personal album to date.
As usual Brown and Booth aren’t giving anything away with their track titles. A selection of letters and a number make up the lion’s share of them. So, the only way to gauge their mood is to listen to the album. Immediately ‘SIGN’ feels like a reflective, almost melancholy, album. Everything about it is understated and slightly mournful, ‘psin AM’ especially. The way the fugs of synth drift about has an almost funeral feeling to it, or if not funeral then sombre. That isn’t to say that Autechre of old made poppy bangers, they didn’t but it would have been cooled to hear, but there were upbeat moments between the glitches and blips.
‘F7’ feels like Brown and Booth having a go at writing something, almost, mainstream then getting halfway through and decided to just rearrange it into a delightfully warped thing of beauty. The main melody is as catchy as anything they’ve ever released and the disjointedness to it only adds to its appeal. It reminds of that bit near the end of John Carpenter’s the Thing. It’s been revealed what is going on and fire has been used to destroy the thing, but instead a piece breaks off slowly and moves away in a contorted fashion. The survivors can only stare in bewilderment until their senses takeover and they take fight or flight. The same happens here.
When ‘F7’ really gets going there is a pleasure in disbelieving what we are hearing. An upbeat Autechre. We don’t know whether to start dancing or to sit down and see where it goes. ‘si00’ carries this upbeat vibe. Instead of being brutalist throughout, the melodies are subtle and sublime creating a feeling of contentment, and dare one say, chill. This is by no means easy listening, but for Autechre this is about as soothing as it gets.
One of the standout tracks is ‘sch. mefd 2’. Opening with haunting synths and static beats, it is subtle throw-back to classic AutechreWarp releases. This adds some different textures to the album. It shows that despite their new direction the duo hasn’t forgotten their roots, they just don’t need to do it on every track. This also doesn’t feel like lip service to their fan base. More like how in TV show there a reference is a character’s performance in another film. The heads get it and nod in appreciation while new fans will enjoy the change in pace tone.
The album closer ‘r cazt’ is dripping in longing. As it slowly broods along there are pockets of hope. Some of these motifs are fleeting, others last longer, but they are there. Shining like a beacon in a dark, like the light at the end of a tunnel.
Only time will tell if ‘SIGN’ is as lauded as ‘Incunabula’, ‘Tri Repeate’ or ‘Confield’, but after these initial dalliances with it I have to admit that it is their most immediate and enjoyable album to date. The music has a distant, crushing vibe to it, that is totally captivating, but the music isn’t claustrophobic. It gives itself, and the listen, room to breathe and move. In the past their album tended to come at you, or to overwhelm before you had a chance to make your mind up about them. Here, Brown and Booth allow you to settle into the tracks before they start twisting the screw. And it works.
There is a tenderness to it that has been missing on previous albums. The songs are also more melodic and less glitchy. This is something that the teenage me would have been appalled at. “How dare they! The glitch is the best bit” I could hear myself saying, but now an older me is more into hearing the music a few times before the audio autopsy being. ‘SIGN’ is an album that doesn’t just get under your skin, but in your head. If you give it enough time it will own, you and you will feel better for it. Autechre have returned and the wait was definitely worth it.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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