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.
Machines don't care. Self-driving cars, data-harvesting algorithms, Boston Dynamics' hideous quadrupeds--all these things unnerve us in part because we know that they can't be trusted. They are indifferent to us by design. Autechre have long played to this unease, channeling the unfathomable depth of machine intelligence into forbiddingly complex music that appears to be the product of pure data, intractable and untamed.
Even as a die-hard fan, listening to an Autechre album can sometimes be a daunting task. You have to be prepared to witness a shapeshifting vessel assemble, launch into hyper-speed with a refractory new turbine engine, land on some mechanical planet, and then have its inner workings disseminated — turns out it's human after all. This all sounds like a feature film, and some previous Autechre records clock in at about the same length: Exai is 120 minutes, the 5 parts of elseq total over four hours, and those NTS Sessions from 2018 are the equivalent of a full work shift.
Autechre have changed their style a lot over the years. To give a potted history, the Artificial Intelligence style of Incunabula and Amber slowly gave way to the abrasive, glitchy textures of Confield and Draft 7.30, before some more conventional melodies and riffs re-entered the picture on Oversteps. The release of Sign follows a handful of very ambitious projects (the two-hour long Exai, four-hour long Elseq, the eight-hour long NTS Sessions) and is refreshingly brief at 65 minutes, its relatively wide range of moods and sounds giving it the grab-bag feel of 1999's EP7.
Autechre tended toward the excessive throughout the 2010s -- an incomplete list of their output during the decade includes the two-hour Exai, the five-part Elseq, and the eight-hour NTS Sessions, in addition to dozens of live releases. The daunting yet highly rewarding NTS Sessions particularly ….
Autechre have spent the last decade putting out the best music of their career on dense, overwhelming packages. First there was the double-album Exai, followed by the five-disc, four-hour elseq, rounded off by 2018's eight-hour NTS Sessions collection. And that's not mentioning the almost 30 hours of live recordings they've dumped on a rabid, receptive fanbase.
SIGN begins with the revving of a motorcycle engine. Okay, so it's probably not an actual motorcycle engine, rather a complicated algorithmic sequence that just so happens to sound like a motorcycle engine. Still, it's a surprisingly prosaic opener for Autechre's fourteenth LP, given Rob Brown and Sean Booth's continuing explorations into ever-more abstract and otherworldly territories.