Exai embraces the spirit of improvisation with fluid, almost jazz-like structures and staggering new highs of sound-design and progression. This refreshingly glitch-free approach brings them closer to their live experiences, humanizing Exai and making it more approachable and relatable than they have been for quite some time.
How time flies. It doesn’t quite seem possible that three years have passed since the unstoppable Autechre released their last LP/EP pairing. The majestic Oversteps and stomping Move Of Ten may not have delivered the deluge of material that accompanied Quaristice (with its ‘Versions’ and almost cripplingly massive Quadrange EP), but the sheer density of the material certainly meant they took their time to sink in. Perhaps it’s this wealth of material Booth & Brown deliver with each new album cycle these days that psychologically shrinks the gap.
Nevertheless, news of a new Autechre album was hotly anticipated enough without the revelation that Exai not only to feature a full seventeen new tracks but also that they were to be lengthy pieces spread across two packed compact discs and four slabs of 180g vinyl.
Those worried by the consequently daunting two-hour running time can be assured, however, that Exai amazingly feels less exhausting to listen to in a single sitting than Oversteps, due at least in part to the clear differences in compositional approach between the two. Where Oversteps was an aloof beauty, rigorously edited and painstakingly precision-etched with each tightly-packed note precisely drawn, Exai seems to embrace a spirit of improvisation with fluid, almost jazz-like structures and staggering new highs of sound-design and progression. This refreshingly glitch-free approach brings them closer to their live experiences, humanizing Exai and making it more approachable and relatable than they have been for quite some time.
That said, Exai opens with a decidedly “difficult” track, so if you can process and enjoy “FLeure,” the rest of the album shouldn’t present you with any problems. A high-speed deluge of sand-blasted, arid clanks, needle-sharp, high-pitched squeaks and bleeps bombard the senses like a hyperactive, supercomputer infected with a malfunctioning, paranoid schizophrenic artificial intelligence frantically communicating at extreme volumes that eventually exhausts itself in a melting sequence of sweeping sub-bass overloads and boiling shutdowns.
“irlite (get 0)” is to Exai what “Treale” was to Oversteps, embodying everything the album stands for. The sound design is exquisite, something that’s not immediately obvious on first listen, with a gargantuan sound-stage, a twisted intro as the track mechanically and electronically configures itself, impossibly deep sub-bass sections, gorgeous ambient breaks and slowly evolving melodic structures formed from vital bursts of free-jazz digital horns and bells. It’s moments like this that make one believe something truly revolutionary is happening here, every ounce of Booth and Brown’s creativity and instinct coming together to form something simultaneously broadly demanding but oddly accessible.
There are, as usual, the occasional noodling tracks that never quite resolve themselves, the first of which is the rubberized, misfiring “prac-f” that, whilst fun, is overshadowed by and functions more as an extension of “irlite (get 0)” than anything else. It does act as a perfect bridge between that and the actively infectious, “jatevee C” however, the clambering keys, arrhythmic, pyrotechnic thuds, cannon-firing beats and chipper claps of which It took three full days to exorcise from my brain.
Continuing this ascension into the realm of glittering, Oversteps-like beauty are the opening squiggles and spritely chords of “T ess xi,” but the tranquility is quickly derailed before collapsing under a metric ton of dreary drips and droning, digital-accordion. Then follows a run of extreme tracks that threaten to defeat the more casual listener, the electrical buzzing of “vekoS” confusingly folding in upon itself while an irritating twittering flutters in the periphery and a wearying rhythm thumps the temples. The relentless clatter of “Flep” that follows is made even more queasy by constant, gastric bubbles, belches and hiccup-burps.
Receiving well-deserved worldwide adoration is the somehow both tense and idyllic, twelve-minute “bladelores” that functions both as the beating heart at the centre of the two-hour experience and a slow, indulgent exhalation at the end of “disc one.” Truth be told, “bladelores” could have been written by anyone, though it’s doubtful it would have been executed with such flawless panache, and yet it must easily rank as one of the finest pieces of music they have ever written. The familiar bouncing-ball structures return, but it is the time-stretched ticks, panoramic pads and layered melodies that are the sunset-soaked bedrock of the track.
It’s arguable that the second half of the album is less accessible, opening with “1 1 is” that sounds for all the world like the bastard offspring of Chiastic Slide and fails to make much of an impact after the grandiose majesty of “bladelores.” The jittery vocal samples of “deco Loc” are an evolutionary dead end, the track lacking the epic progression that typifies the best of Exai, and though “cloudline” reads like a fragmented and screwed soundtrack to an aged documentary about experimental scientific laboratories, laced with hip-hop arsenic and irradiated, almost bluesy keys, it noodles for an overlong ten minutes, constantly sticking like a worn out slab of vinyl. Even “recks on” only really hits its stride halfway through, and I’d happily sacrifice the first half to get to the stunning sub-bass rumble, dry waves and buzz/sizzle of the second.
But then you have a block of tracks that are up there with some of the most dramatic Autechre have put out to date. It begins with the randomly time-stretched squash-ball metallic twangs of “nodezsh” that ricochet to moody stabs of pitch-bent horns and Move Of Ten reverb-soaked keys, and continues with the near-non-repetitive beats of “runrepik” that similarly bounce around a malfunctioning telephone exchange like a streaming, overclocked game of Breakout under perpetual Galaxian attack. In spite of “spl9″‘s track title sounding like something that should have appeared on Quaristice this brutal assault actually harkens back to Autechre’s “difficult” academic trifecta. The cable-twanging, snapping percussion and distorted, polished aluminum surfaces could easily have been lifted from Untilted. As if that wasn’t enough, at various intervals an absolutely killer pad that one might expect to hear on one of Alva Noto’s Xerrox series of albums kicks in.
As a sharp counterpoint to the tricky opener “FLeure”, Exai ends with the glass-shards and fluttering keys of “YJY IUX,” a return to the clean, fresh lines and statuesque poise of Amber rendered with incredible compositional complexity. But it’s not quite over yet. Japanese bonus tracks on previous Autechre albums have seldom disappointed, but in Exai‘s case, “(keyosc)” turns out to be a real highlight, as well as one of the album’s most memorable and emotional works (perhaps the reason for its absence from the standard edition). Furthermore, like so many tracks on Exai, you’re missing out on the complete experience if you’re not listening to it on speakers with a good bass response, exquisite sub-bass once again a driving force in the narrative and melody of the piece.
The vast majority of Exai is arguably nothing especially new, but the fact that it is effectively a distillation of everything great about Autechre’s back catalogue rendered on a truly epic scale means it simply doesn’t need to be. Exai reaches new levels of sophistication, even for a duo like Booth and Brown who exist on the freshly bleeding-edge. It works equally brilliantly as an end-to-end experience, or dipped into piecemeal, incorporates enormous variety but maintain a consistent feel across the album, and in spite of its length is quite simply the most incisive and effective Autechre work yet. It doesn’t get much better than this.