Before you start reading this review, click the play button above and listen to “T ess xi” for a little bit. It's important that we're on the same page before we start talking about Autechre, one of the most interesting IDM groups I’ve ever heard. Autechre (pronounced however you want, according to them) is the English electronic music duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth. Releasing albums since 1987 (all on Warp Records; this newest effort being no exception), Autechre is mostly easily described as IDM (although that’s a tricky label in itself), though they certainly have roots in electro, techno, and hip-hop, each of which is often discernible at one point or another during most of their ten albums, albeit usually under complex layers of experimental patterns. With their eleventh album, Exai (get it? Like the roman numeral for 11, XI), Autechre has continued their own musical development and exploration into far reaching places, but I think it’s possible they let their own creativity get the best of them.
In a 2008 interview with Pitchfork, Rob Brown said regarding technology and its limits (or lack thereof), “Well, you've got to be realistic. You can sit in front of a computer and have a blank slate and be completely overwhelmed by the possibilities and not get anywhere.” While Autechre wasn’t so overwhelmed that they didn’t get anywhere. I think they went further than they probably needed to go. At roughly two hours long, Exai is Autechre’s longest album yet, and it feels like it too. It’s unfortunate because while there are certainly some great songs, parts of songs, or just stand-alone moments through the album’s seventeen tracks (“T ess xi,” “bladelores,” “jatevee C,” “YJY UX,” and “vekoS” were some of the highlights for me), the monstrous length really weighs down the whole production. The glitch synths mixed with the smooth ones, the intricate and seemingly impossibly complex beats, and the general feeling of unhampered freedom and exploration are all certainly expertly displayed by these guys. They obviously remove any doubts concerning their technical and musical abilities. However, the freedom and exploration that comes with jamming doesn’t necessarily always translate successfully to a studio album.
Quite simply, most of the album is in need of aggressive editing. The album is, at times, very interesting and quite beautiful, but it feels like there’s a whole rainforest you have to machete through to get to the really good stuff. Perhaps it’s a bit of an overstatement, but Exai feels like an overindulgent record that was made more for Autechre’s enjoyment than for that of potential listeners. Though Autechre isn’t a jam band, they share a lot of the same musical properties (musical exploration, repetitive structures, ultra-long live performances), and the faults on Exai remind me of problems that can easily plague jam bands. The longer they play, the easier it is for something to go wrong, but diehard fans of Autechre, of which there are many after this long of a career, are likely to take whatever is being served, even if it is a bit of a rambling two hour album. (I’m reminded of a 1997 review in the Indianapolis of the jam band Phish in which critic Marc D. Allan writes, “To be blunt... Phish could urinate in its fans' ears and tell them it's music. The fans, in turn, would be there with tape recorders to capture the moment.”)
If you want to get into Autechre, this isn’t the place to start. One of the touted beauties of this duo is their evolution over time as it reflects both the changing musical world around them (which has been especially full of friction in the past twenty years) and their own musical tastes. Unfortunately, to really understand Exai, you’d probably need to listen to all ten of their previous albums (though one might argue you could just listen to a couple, as long as you include what are sometimes considered the “highlights” — LP5, Amber, Tri Repeate and Untilted — but even that’s a lot of music), which would take you just under twelve hours, and that’s before you got to this two hour behemoth of an album.
So when it came time for me to assign Autechre’s Exai a numerical value, I was a bit stuck. From what I’ve described here, it doesn’t seem like this album really fits neatly into our ratings system. There aren’t really standout songs as much as there are standout parts of or moments of songs. This isn’t something you can casually listen or from which you can add a few tracks to a playlist. Exai is a work of music you need to try to enjoy in one sitting, all the way through. If you can last that long and are able to weed out what’s unnecessary, you’re probably in for a treat. But that’s easier said than done.
2. irlite (get 0)
4. jatevee C
5. T ess xi
10. 1 1 is
15. deco Loc
16. recks on
17. YJY UX