Autechre, Exai

Artwork by Geoff Nees

[Warp Records]

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Exai is a monolith — a large, heavy, slate cardboard box that contains four thick-cut slabs of vinyl. It arrives as a bit of a dare, egging you on to drop what you’re doing and sink deep into its two-hour runtime, and those of us who count themselves as Ae junkies likely don’t have to think twice about doing so. Yet the most intriguing and imposing thing about Exai was the mystery it contained: just what was this new record going to sound like? Aside from Confield, 2010’s Oversteps marked the single biggest side-step of the Rochdale duo’s career, taking the labyrinthine, exceedingly complex rhythms they’ve been mining in the 21st century and applying what they’ve learned to melody. Baroque, haunting, and beautiful, Oversteps seemed poised to usher in Autechre 3.0: a new kink dividing their discography like Confield did before.

It didn’t. Exai will sound stylistically familiar to Autechre fans, almost comfortingly so, but it raises plenty of new challenges. Much has been written of its length, but then it’s hard to tell exactly how we’re expected to consume this album. Two hours of any artist can be a chore, and given the sheer density of their music, it’s hard to imagine that Booth and Brown expect our undivided attention for Exai‘s entire runtime. Digesting it as four vinyl records works reasonably well, though I personally believe it works best as two complimentary CDs. Autechre have always shined in the CD format; something about their music is perfect for 60 minutes but ends up less engaging in shorter or longer doses.

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Either way, for all its density, Exai contains some of Autechre’s most immediate music in a very long time. “FLeure” reacquaints us with the seemingly incoherent, cacophonous web of rhythms that Autechre are known for by throwing us in the deep end. There are few lifelines to grab hold of until dark, distorted bass tones puncture the track, upping the urgency considerably while starting to provide some context for the tangle of rhythmic shards. Things settle down in “irlite (get 0)” with clearer beats and the introduction of some tangible melodies, evolving in its own time and feeling like the first deep glance we get at Exai‘s overall vibe. “prac-f,” “Flep,” and “tuinorizn” reflect the hip-hop influence Booth and Brown have always nursed naturally and effortlessly, reminding that for all their heady experimentation, Autechre remain eternal b-boys.

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Cuts like “vekoS” and “cloudline” navigate what sounds like a landscape of spectral, shattered rhythms of Autechre past, often with a contorted synth sound playing the role of Virgil. Exai, at times, even sounds like Autechre have gone so far as to sample themselves (I swear I hear something from Chiastic Slide in “Flep” or perhaps some of Gantz Graf ripped to shreds in “1 1 is”). Digesting and versioning their own gargantuan discography into a similarly mammoth piece of work often opens up alluring new paths, such as on the spacious, foreboding “nodezsh” or on the incredible, blunted hip-hop of “deco Loc.” On Exai, Autechre have never sounded quite so much like Autechre, but each track shines a light down a compelling new avenue that the duo could follow ad infinitum were they not so wonderfully scatterbrained.

Exai contains a handful of “big” tracks that stand out and pay off in myriad ways. “jatevee C” is a bright, chords-driven slab of heavy, stomping rhythmic cadences that provides immediate and lasting levity. The most stunning moments of Exai, however, come at the end of CD1 and CD2, respectively. “bladelores” is the records’ longest cut, and its place as Act I’s closer is well deserved. It tunnels deep into the major tropes and ideas on show throughout Exai, but with a majestic sense of forward momentum and space that sucks the listener in and threatens to never let go. Stronger still is “YJY UX,” which flits between delicate ambiences and overblown rhythms with a bass line that’s almost catchy. As a statement of intent, it’s sublime, and as a summation and reflection of all that came before it, does its job commendably. Exai is puzzling and frustrating, urgent and patient, suffocating and breathless. As Autechre have always done, they present something that asks a whole lot of questions and doesn’t even entertain the notion of answering them. For longtime fans, you couldn’t ask for anything more. For those who have yet to be acquainted with Rochdale’s finest, Exai might not provide the easiest entry point, but it might just offer the most comprehensive.

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