What is daunting about their work is less the mystery of how it is made than the specter of the utmost disregard that lurks on the fringes of their compositions. Their music can suggest that machines are running amok cheerfully, unimpressed by the presence of people unwilling to bow to the human desire for melody and rhythm. In brief moments of pathos or humor – the appearance of a plaintive synthesizer tone, the momentary outbreak of a groove – the duo’s hands become visible behind the thicket of circuits. But as their work has grown thicker and darker, these moments have become unusual; It was easy to ask if Booth and Brown had calcified themselves to silicon. But from the sound of SIGN, something has changed.
It’s not just that their music has gradually become more Byzantine over the past decade, as if their already fractal beats continued to shatter, granular patterns branching out into gardens with forked paths. The dimensions of their work expanded. They quickly followed the 2010s Overruns With Move of ten, a 10-track EP as long as many albums. The 4xLP Exai, in 2013 ran for two hours, an achievement that was doubled by the five-part elseq Series in 2016, the duration of which doubled again with the absurd eight hours of 2018 NTS sessions. SIGNin contrast, is remarkably compact. Freezing through 11 tracks in just over an hour, it’s about as long as the last one Spur on the final tape of the NTS sessions.
More important, SIGN is surprisingly direct: slim, at times calm, often quite pretty. The album starts intimidatingly with a synthetic growl that the heptapods might be in arrival discover the evils of gluten. But then, after a minute and a half of rumbling and rattling, which sounds like a submarine collapsing under sea pressure, they unleash a single chord that is one of the most beautiful sounds they have made in 29 years. An explosion of color erupts from the moaning of twisted metal, like a cloud of powdery pigment that hangs in the air for a moment before dissolving and announcing the tone palette for the entire album. Over the course of the recording, this “basic tonal vocabulary,” as Brown recently called it in an interview (possibly borrowing from British avant-techno legend Surgeon), boils down to a handful of eerily vivid textures and sensations: sheet metal soapstone and pumice stone; Lozenges are getting smaller and smaller; renegade foghorns; the taste of copper.
The chaos quickly re-emerges in the opening track, but this is the only place the duo’s violent tendencies reign. even then, it is as if the beats have been sheared off and sanded off, leaving only the hint of great force in the streaks left behind. Most of the album is anything but beatless. “F7” is a synthesizer étude whose fanfare might not sound out of place in a Michael Mann film, if not the dangerous detuning and the hollow, humming sound that flickers like fluorescent tubes. “Si00” chirps and rings over a muffled pulse, like sour ambient techno from the early 90s; “Esc desc” is slow and stately, layered synthesizers that alternate between consonance and dissonance, like several copies of “Elegia” by New Order that are not played in sync. It takes five tracks for Autechre to hit their first real beat, but even here, on “au14,” where Drexciyan tones bubble to the surface on a 4/4 rapid-fire kick, they seem determined, their squirrel-like tendencies to keep in check. Each component is constantly changing its shape. Good luck enumerating all of the discrete elements in the game, let alone tracking their millisecond-by-millisecond mutations. However, the music flows intuitively. It’s not difficult, just alive.
Something almost like nostalgia rises on occasion, a rarity for this duo. The grumpy synthesizers from “psin AM” are calling back on Boards of Canada Hello scores EP, which is unexpected because the Sandison brothers often looked like Autechre’s docile younger cousins, dreaming in the fields while Booth and Brown soldered shortwave radios in the garage. The calm tones of the many beatless tracks on the album spring from the contemplative from 2008 Quaristice and even 1994 is wistful Bernstein. Metaz form8, the beautiful ambient centerpiece of the album, could be the first Autechre composition you could possibly play on the piano.
But this outward simplicity is deceptive. Each replay of even the most low-key tracks here brings out new details and new shades. The melodies tend to cluster in close formation around narrow tapes; The whole album feels like a swarm of insects trying to carry a melody. Even the softest material SIGN is not too different from the strictest or most amelodic material NTS sessions;; It has just been smoothed into a shape that captures the light differently and emphasizes continuity over disjunction. They found new ways to make their favorite materials sing.
The shortest track on the album is the most impressive. “Gr4” is the most lyrical piece of music Autechre has written in years, with clean contrapuntal movements reminiscent of baroque music – all buried under layers of effects that corrode the orchestral tones to dust. The longer it takes, the more it feels almost like a real song. Then after three minutes it just disappears without ever fully revealing itself. The ending feels sudden and unplanned; They wonder why they cut it here, what happened when it was recorded, that they couldn’t take it any further. But after the maximalist bonanza of recent years, it is a new, welcome feeling at Autechre to want more. With SIGNAutechre has managed to do something that machines cannot do nearly as well as humans: surprise us.
Buy: Rough Trade
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