Autechre meld the unknown with the cathartic on new album ‘SIGN’

2Autechre is a name that graces the record collection of any self-respecting electronic music enthusiast, and has been for decades. From purveyors of sleek crystalline beats to becoming the masterminds behind the most distinctively curious electronic music ever to grace our ear canals, it seems as though Manchester natives Rob Brown and Sean Booth have left no sonic palette untouched.

Their career as Autechre has spanned almost 30 years, and in that time they’ve explored unearthly atmospheres and frantic rhythms (Incunabula, Amber, Tri Repetae), tender melodies carried by eccentric, finely tweaked synths (Chiastic Slide, LP5) and sprawling voyages into controlled generative synthesis and unorthodox tones on Confield, Draft 7.30, Untilted and Quaristice. Over the past decade, the duo have been tirelessly fostering this ever-growing library of¬†idiosyncratic sounds further, continuing to surprise fans with an ever-unfurling discography filled with intricate sonic labyrinths and ethereal ambience.

For us, their latest full-length album¬†SIGN is a very much¬†welcome addition to this lauded catalogue, and is also their most traditionally curated album in 7 years – their album lengths since 2013’s¬†Exai¬†have been growing indefatigably, with 2016’s ‘Elseq 1-5’ series arriving at 4 hours and its follow up¬†NTS Sessions 1-4¬†at a gargantuan 8 hour running time in total. Their clear love for geometric sequences aside, SIGN only runs at a modest 65 minutes, unusually short for an Autechre album, yet it still encompasses a diverse rollercoaster of emotions that Booth himself in a New York Times interview has deemed “strangely jarring, it’s sort of too real”, perhaps hinting at it’s almost prophetic nature, with the album being completed before the Covid-19 lockdowns.

This album is sparse but oddly cozy, sometimes verging on volatile, with melodic components that straddle between the hopeful and the sombre. Despite these songs having no reference to current events, some of these tracks could easily be construed as laments for a world in a state of indefinite stagnation.

The album kicks off with ‘M4 Lema’, beginning with a series of disconcerting synthetic growls that grow increasingly frequent until they culminate into an avalanche of pure synthetic motion. Soon comes an ensemble of frictionless, airy pads, almost emanating from somewhere in the distance, contrasting with the harsh simulated fragments of steel and contracting rubber in the foreground. The track then introduces an elusive skeletal rhythm, organising the violently tactile motion into order, almost resembling a wonky downtempo beat. Both ‘F7’, and ‘esc desc’ respectively hit us with their walls of detuning analogue synths that play a pensive and haunting melody under what sounds like an improvised top line of shimmering overlapped square waves.

On a more whimsical note is ‘si00’ which consists of a bell-like sine over a droning bass, gracing low-frequency blobs of FM that knock away like a metronome. ‘au14’ almost harks back to the Exai¬†days with is more fragmented, beat driven approach composed of metallic chords and skittering percussive elements.

The album soon diverges from the paranoid soundscapes of it’s previous four tracks with the awe-inspiring ambient number ‘Metaz form8’, a beautiful ensemble of glistening pads underpinning what sounds like Autechre’s mutation of a Wurlitzer playing a delightful bed of chords. It’s very easy to imagine Vangelis marvelling over this track, with it’s an effortless blend of the artificial with the romantic. The tranquillity is soon disturbed by the brilliant ‘sch.mefd 2’, a bumpy groove laden with modulated tones that weave in and out of each other over a steady hip hop style beat. ‘gr4’ is a steady stream of knotted chords that roll along at a seemingly incomprehensible time signature over a 4/4 bass pattern.

More straightforwardly, ‘th red a’ cycles through a set of pads that almost engage in a call and response with the alien snarls of ‘M4 Lema’. si00‘s low-freq metronome returns once more for ‘psin AM’, steadily hitting at a four to the floor beat under an increasingly moody set of filtered chords. Finally, theres the outro ‘r cazt’ which undeniably reprises the tasteful ambience of Quaristice’s intro track ‘Altibzz’. There couldn’t really be a better outro for such a record, a solemn and emotive conclusion that rounds off the album with a dignified view of the future.