For every stubborn fan who thinks their best period ended with LP5, there are plenty of others who have found something to love in Autechre’s post-Confield run. Expectations and ideas about what Autechre should sound like aside, there’s actually plenty there to love. But Exai is one of their best albums, period. Forget about their past work. Without the shadow of Tri Repetae hanging over them, these 17 songs prove to be among the most hypnotizing and dynamic the duo has ever made.
Nevermind that Exai, Autechre’s 11th proper album, comes on two CDs and four LPs. It’s neither too long nor too taxing, and anyone with an attention span longer than a goldfish’s will find it easy enough to appreciate. Listen to it one disc at a time—or one side at a time—if going through two hours of music all at once sounds unappetizing, but don’t trust anyone that says it is poorly edited or too difficult to swallow in one go. Exai is littered with catchy melodies, intricate rhythms, and unexpected twists that make listening to it fun. It’s also beefier and more tightly woven than anything Autechre’s produced over the last couple of years. Instead of treating them as separate elements, Brown and Booth once again bind their melodies, rhythms, colors, and textures together, creating a geometric sound that gives their songs depth, structure, and a sense of completeness that’s long been missing from their music.
Even when songs like “irlite (get 0)” turn on a dime and meander into weightless, pixelated wastes, the duo maintain a feeling of cohesiveness by sticking to the palette and logic they’ve developed to that point. Exai leaps and turns in on itself this way, jumping freely from tightly wound passages to looser ones without falling apart. Not that there are many places where it could fall apart. Beats resolve into airy, stuttering loops and melodies disappear into a storm of snapping drums, but through all the twists and turns are familiar sounds and signposts: bright synth pads reminiscent of Aphex Twin take center stage on “T ess xi” and “cloudline” bounces with a rubbery melody and vocal effect funky enough for Squarepusher or Daft Punk. Autechre make it their own by using density and unpredictable variation to move the music along rather than tension or the usual structural devices.
But Sean and Rob have never relied on big builds or easy payoffs to make their music exciting. On Exai they’ve struck a middle road through the roaming looseness of their last two albums and the mechanical logic of well-loved classics like LP5 and Tri Repetae. Finding this road has obviously inspired them, or I don’t think they’d present two full of hours of music at once. Not everything on the album is equally excellent—the second disc is definitely the stronger of the two sets—but there’s nothing I’d want to cut. Digging into this music, stumbling on its nuances, and letting it work its magic is part of the fun. At two hours long, there’s plenty of time to get lost and forget about expectations and preconceived notions. Repeat listens offer up hidden patterns, previously unseen red threads, and a better lay of the land. Exai offers some upfront pleasures, but needs a little time to fully sink in. Once it does it sounds even better.
In fact, Exai’s biggest problem isn’t its length. It’s that albums like LP5 and Tri Repetae came long before it. They’re 15 and 18 years old now; as old or older than most people’s favorite pets. But these records aren’t going to die on us and we can listen to them anytime we want. In the meantime, it’s worth giving this new dog some time and attention. It knows a few tricks the old ones didn’t.