Autechre: elseq

May 28th, 2016

The last couple of years have been busy ones for Autechre.  Exai was an album of staggering scope, made even more audacious by the fact that it was uniformly good.  Not many musical acts in any genre can still turn out solid material with such consistency three decades into their career.

The group has always been known for its live shows, but they've never seemed keen on releasing recordings of them.  Then, without notice or fanfare, they released nine different live sets on the same day.

The marketing and distribution were interesting.  No physical copies are available.  The music can be downloaded off their website.  Grab whichever sets you want; they've said there's no specific order in which they're to be digested, and the sum of them is 8 hours of listening.

Needless to say, it was a huge surfeit of material.  Most artists would be content to sit back a couple of years while the audience digests that much.

Now they've released another dump of what is essentially five studio albums.  I really have no idea how or why they're suddenly working at such a pace, but the biggest surprise is how consistent it all is.

Essentially, elseq is broken down into five records.  Each one has its own character, but they all fit together as a whole.

I suppose going in numerical order is the best way to start.  The first record opens with "feed1," which sounds a bit timeless for them.  It could have fit in well on 1997's Chiastic Slide just as well as 2001's Confield.  It's grimy and largely amelodic without being abrasive.  Having set the tone, "c16 deep tread" flies in the other direction, feeling like a more playful track from the hip-hop influenced Untilted.  Ever wonder what the fractured melodies of Oversteps would sound like over the skittery beats of Quaristice?  "13×0 step" is just that.

"pendulu hv moda" may be the most melodic and openly emotional thing they've done in ages.  Sure, things are glitched out and smeared, but there's a real sense of drama and beauty.

The second and third records each contain three tracks, several of which are over 20 minutes long.  I still think "Sublimit" is the best long-form track they've done, and none of these quite matches it in terms of structure.  Still, "c7b2" is a fun romp in 6/8, and "mesh cinereaL" is a gorgeous track that makes excellent use of its 25-minute run time.

The fourth record is my favorite so far.  "acdwn2" starts a bit like Richard James doing acid house, but where James would play it straight, Autechre completely destabilize it and tear it apart.  It reminds me of L-Event a bit, and I'm pretty sure that's the bassline from "Calbruc."

"foldfree casual" is actually pretty.  It sounds a bit like Eno's work with Cluster in the 1970's, but with asymmetrical percussion towards the end.  The way the melody in "latentcall" turns melancholy and disintegrates makes me think they've been listening to Tim Hecker lately. Not a bad thing at all.

"7th slip" got on my nerves until it didn't.  I had to listen to it twice before I got what they were doing. It's like a broadcast of a 1930's swing radio station, intercepted and remixed by aliens.  Or Philip Jeck.

"freulaeux" is, I kid you not, an almost straightforward house track with a 4/4 beat.  The overlying textures sound like something from Draft 7.30, but there's no denying how…well, it's optimistic and sunny in a way that doesn't seem the least bit out of character.

I could go on, but it would defeat the point.  I get two impressions from the record(s).  The first is that there's a certain syncretism going on here.  I'm hearing elements from just about every period in their history.  Listen closely and you'll hear a bassline that wouldn't have been out of place on one of their Basscadet remixes.  In other spots, the melodic framework feels like something from Tri Repetae.  Structures and rhythmic elements from Chiastic Slide and Confield pop up from time to time.

That brings me to the second impression.  This feels like an improvised set.  Sure, it's obvious these tracks all had a general plan, but there's also a very loose feel to everything.  Despite its broad sprawl, Exai still felt tight and controlled.  This time around, things are much less formal.  I don't think I'd ever accuse Autechre of being sloppy, but I get a playful, relaxed feeling from this batch of material that's never really been apparent before.

I can't confirm it, but this all feels like they've taken the methods and software they use for their live shows and used it to create material in the studio.  I've always held the view that every Autechre record has a theme of sorts, and I'm going to venture that the theme for this one was studio improvisation.

So, is it good?  Yes, very.

Should you drop the money for 4 hours' material?  If you're a fan, yes.  There are a few so-so tracks, but this is solid work overall, with more than a few pleasant surprises.  If you're not, I'd suggest the first or fourth records to start.

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