(April 2010) It’s a rare thing in these internet savvy days to be genuinely shocked by a new album from a well established artist, not least because there are frequently spoiler laden press releases, samples or free/exclusive tracks flying around months prior to the release date. The announcement of a new Autechre (“Ae”) album generates an unrivaled amount of anticipation and speculation and it is now almost a tradition for another artist to ride on the back of this by creating a fake “leaked” version of the album to promote their own new material, often leaving fans completely divided about its authenticity. That’s how unpredictable Ae can be.
In recent years, however, it was becoming inevitable that the new Ae would be another “difficult,” generative, complex affair: the leftfield Confield led to the near impenetrable Draft 7.30 which finally spawned the eight extended ice-cream headaches of Untilted. Then along came Quaristice, its twenty tightly edited vignettes throwing an unexpected curve-ball that wrong-footed many, making it one of the most controversial Ae albums in years. It’s probably the most playful album in their canon too – a melting pot of disparate ideas and live jams squeezed together on what sometimes feels more like a compilation rather than an album in its own right. Further clues to the change in direction Ae might be taking are in hindsight evident in Quadrange.ae.ep, and without Quaristice and its associated extra material to bridge the gap Oversteps would have been even more controversial than it already is.
Interestingly, the artwork and packaging for Oversteps seems to represent a deliberate reaction to Quaristice (and thank goodness we’ve got The Designers Republic back on the case after a number of incredibly unimaginative covers). Crisp digital squares, minute and precisely laid out Akzidenz Grotesk type together with chilly stainless steel bespoke slip-cases are replaced by crudely finished, hand-painted circular daubs – all visible brush-strokes and paint splatter – large, cascading overlaid type in what appears to be a custom typeface, each letter individually distressed by hand, in un-laminated digi-pack sleeves. It was screaming to be pre-ordered, and Warp offered an unrivaled physical plus download package to further tempt consumers.
And then, almost a month prior to the release date of the physical product, there it suddenly was in everyone’s Bleep Downloads folder, just as many had predicted. And horror of horrors Oversteps unfurled, revealing itself to be not only their most melodic work in years (gasp), but also featured conventional rhythms and percussion. Yet there’s no evidence to suggest that their work is any less complex than it was before. The incredibly intricate patterns and techniques normally applied to their rhythms and programming have been painstakingly mapped onto the melodies, textures and atmospheres of Oversteps to devastating effect. It is a bombardment of at first seemingly random, kaleidoscopic or cascading meteor showers of melodic keys, but repeated listens reveal multitudes of cloaked detail.
Making Quaristice‘s opener “altibzz” seem like a mere rehearsal piece in comparison, the gravitational force that is “r ess” pulls the listener in with its decadently lengthy fade up. The gnashing of “ilanders” teeth remains in familiar Quaristice territory too, there’s that dry, crunchy, almost improvised sound here; anyone for a nice bowl of printed circuit-board flakes with lashings of ice cold mercury for breakfast? It’s not long before the bold new direction really begins to take hold, though. Take the quite classically beautiful “seeonsee” as an example, consisting of little more than teased and jostled hanging gardens of windswept, crystalline wind-chimes that reveal themselves to be a pure force of nature.
“Treale” is the sun at the centre of the Oversteps solar system, the energy source powering its orbiting satellites, and is undoubtedly the real poster-boy for this album. Announcing itself with a grandiose fanfare, spitting static, emitting irradiated bass pulses and spraying diverse keys into multi-layered, cut-up melodic sequences it is surely one of the most memorable opening moments of any track in Ae’s vast canon. Some moments later it spawns a stomping, skeletal hip-hop beat that initially diverts attention away from the complex, chrome-plated synths (of the kind that gave Amber its dazzling lustre), but repeated listens open up whole other worlds of layered textural and melodic detail. This is quite simply the perfect Ae track. It then flows seamlessly into “os veix3,” which heightens the mood and atmosphere even further with majestic valleys of warm reverb punctuated by hydraulic hiss, pizzicato synths and soft drum pads before melting into the tubular bells of “0=O.”
For every oasis of calm on Oversteps, there’s a track screaming to be played loudly. “st epreo” is a dish best served deafening, an avalanche of guttural bass and belching synths that tumble and clatter out of the speakers to shatter, collide and ricochet off every surface they encounter. Once again Ae deliver a stunning confluence of the melodic and the discordant in perfect proportion, creating an experience that is simultaneously challenging and immensely addictive. “d-sho qub” may begin as a turbulent exercise in jaunty, almost poppy melodic chicanery riddled, warped and studded with ballistic effects, but its closing moments recall Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: ASO as the chilling choir of voices that wreathed through the preceding insanity are left to hang menacingly in the void. Then there’s “Redfall;” a hyperactive music box, its mirror-polished cylinder spinning, pins picking frantically at the glinting teeth of its comb, whilst a screaming, tearing and distorted voice roars somewhere deep inside the device.
Oversteps does go off the rails from time to time, however. “known(1)” begins with a promising, almost eastern vibe but quickly devolves into squawking chaos. It’s rather like being mauled by a Hitchcockian swarm of vicious piranha-parakeets whilst a gnarled, giggling kobold relentlessly thumps the inside of your skull with a toffee-hammer. “qplay” begins just as atmospherically, but is quickly shredded by random projectiles, becoming a ricocheting, gangly-arm waving four-minute thumb-twiddle that noodlingly spoils the enjoyment just gleaned from the delicate ambiance of “pt2ph9” whilst obstructing the path leading to the album’s exquisitely timed and flowing mid-section. And “krYlon” is a cacophony of 80s BBC Radiophonic Workshop chimes that overextends itself by several minutes, ultimately playing second fiddle to the far superior dramatic closer “Yuop.”
Like all the greatest Ae albums, once you’re done obsessing over the most immediate tracks, or your personal favorites, you’ll genuinely want to start picking apart others that may ultimately become new favorites. Oversteps is an absolute triumph for Ae, taking a brave new direction that will undoubtedly create new fans and win back those who lost their way post Confield, whilst simultaneously pleasing the majority of their existing fan-base. Quite an achievement.
Oversteps is out now on Warp. [Listen & Purchase]