Within the dominion of Autechre, much is consigned to chaos. By this point in the careers of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, they act in a manner that is as much, if not more, focused on developing an aesthetic landscape than any particular musical structure. They view electronics not as a style that can be taken and reproduced ad nauseum, but as an ethos and way of life. In this way, you could probably consider them monks of electronic music and honestly, I don’t think they would disagree. However, this relationship they have to electronics is not stable by any means. Humans and the electronic world do not cohabitate so easily. This can be heard pretty clearly in their music, to the extent that it might be ingrained in their identity. Autechre flourishes in crafting desolation and coarseness as palpable entities within their music. They often allow texture to take the main stage which helps establish inhumanity as a key theme within their oeuvre. In the past decade, however, they seemed to have a breakthrough with their experimentation, resulting in their most abstract and challenging music yet. Consequently, Autechre moved even further away from any semblance of humanity, instead opting to create a feeling of breaking down, or rupturing. Albums like Exai and elseq 1 sounded like exercises in musical self-immolation. Yet, in this new decade, it seems Autechre have taken a more emotive form of expression without sacrificing too much of their own style. SIGN shows the humanity Autechre are capable of, all the while giving their most detailed presentation of a fractured state of mind.
Not that far into the record, it becomes evident that there is a higher emphasis on melody. The introduction to the first track “M4 Lema” acts a red herring by starting with sharp ripping sounds and heavy use of interference and feedback. All of a sudden, one single ethereal tone materializes and disrupts the tension like a shaft of light finally breaking through the vast cover of clouds. The song progresses in such a way that displays a struggle between these two sides. When one takes control, it is promptly subsumed by the other. When the synths get the chance to emerge and bring some emotional clarity, the interference comes back to obfuscate everything. “M4 Lema” does a great job of showing how SIGN functions as a whole. The record intentionally tries to split and confuse the listener’s mind. Of course, there is a much more varied approach across the songs than just alternating between melodic passages and textural chaos. For example, the proceeding song “F7” hardly has any textural emphasis at all (it’s mostly just synth tones), and yet the way the synths jump around makes it feel like the song is trying to pull you in several directions at once. The album truly feels like the soundtrack to cognitive dissonance.
But why this record? Why does SIGN seemingly achieve this level of breakage compared to other works in Autechre’s catalogue that sound distinctly more broken? Firstly, it might be a bit hasty to assume that this cognitive dissonance has always been their goal. Autechre have always been a very elusive and abstruse group who rarely do interviews or public appearances, therefore they aren’t exactly open about their own artistic intentions. Secondly, many of their previous records don’t try to interact with many human elements anyway so they appropriately lack the level of introspection needed for this fractured state of mind to occur. Honestly, the fact that SIGN is their most human record in a long time is precisely why we can feel this cognitive dissonance in the first place. There are clear emotions that they want us to feel, it’s just that they change so fast and so drastically that the human mind can barely process them.
In a rare interview, The New York Times asked Autechre how they feel about the record now, considering they recorded it in 2018 and 2019. One particularly notable line in Booth’s response is, “It’s difficult to listen to because it’s too emotionally resonant.” It’s shocking to think that SIGN was made before everything that would come to pass this year, considering how its own theme of the fractured state coincides so effortlessly with the fractured state of the world. In that sense, their response is totally reasonable. The album becomes haunted by the future it unintentionally predicts. 2020 is the year of the fractured state, and SIGN was the whistle-blower that showed up too late.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at email@example.com.