Sonic architecture, political engagement and, er, a bunch of other stuff
Sometimes words aren’t enough. When you’re trying to capture the substance of sounds, which morph and bend so rapidly. When you’re trying to unpick dense but shifting structures or an emptiness that fills to the brim with intangible abstraction. When music like this hits you, words aren’t enough.
As critics, we might deal with this by opening with a potted linear history of the artist. We might try to pin things down with meaningless generic signposts like “jazz” or “techno” or “industrial”. We might then obsess over the technical details of the production. But all these approaches are woefully inadequate when looking at Autechre’s work, where words fall short and ultimately fail.
Strange, then, that this two-hour album feels like a cacophony of words. Conversations spilling, ideas spreading, random hypotheses scattered to the strongest winds of daily chatter. ‘Exai’ is a collection of conversations with no first or last word, where everyone is talking but no one is being heard. It’s what social networking sounds like.
Conversation, like history, doesn’t travel in straight and singular lines. In truth, there are numerous histories from a variety of voices, all moving in different directions through time. Popular music attempts to reduce this multiple narrative to a single voiced, simple chronology, resulting in the predictable and unchallenging. Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno called this the state of “eversame” and suggested that popular music has already done the listening for us, so we passively consume it. In return, we become desensitised to the tedium of the everyday. Music’s potential for oppositional, political thought is subsequently made impotent by the state of “eversame”.
Few musicians truly challenge the environment of “eversame”. In representing conversational chaos, however, Autechre are among those limited few. As such, they are one of the few political production outfits around. Each and every one of their albums demands full attention, requiring the listener to step outside of the ‘eversame’ and become deeply challenged.
‘Exai’ is no different. The approach is quite simple; sonic architecture as political engagement. The exact opposite to alienation, which is how their work is usually represented. It starts with the jagged and oppositional frequency snatches of ‘FLeure’ and ends with the free-flowing information memes of ‘YJY UX’. From the chaos of noise to chaos as order – a metaphor for the journey from interrupted byte-sized comments to clear lines of communication, but filtered through the lenses of misinformation and directed understanding.
Take ‘spi9’, with its collapsing chatter, or ‘1 1 is’, which enters like the muffled tones of war-torn frontline radio and goes out like an insistent repeated command. ‘nodeszsc’ explores similar ideas, as warm swathes of lush synth plays counterpoint to random, arguing arpeggios. Each track evolves through a similar storm, dragging you towards the ever shifting eye. The trip inward is never an easy one, but Autechre’s process brings you into the centre.
So what does it actually sound like? In tangible, easily digestable, “eversame” review style? How about, it’s the sum of all of Autechre’s albums in monolithic form? Or that it features swathes of brittle ambience, analogue shards, dark techno illbience, galactic jazz, breakbeat deconstructed, industrial funk reconfigured, and house twisted through the circuitry of glitch? None of which really captures the breadth of this album. How about, ‘Exai’ is a whirlwind of status updates, which slowly connect until they unfold into multi-flow conversation? How about, no first word, no last word, just the hum and hustle of histories in collapse?
Sometimes words aren’t enough.