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Autechre: Oversteps & Move of Ten

img  Tobias Fischer

„Oversteps – 14 Tracks“, the black and white sticker attached to the translucent plastic foil wrapped around this, Autechre's tenth full-length, dryly states, pretending as though its authors were anonymous debutantes rather than electronic music icons, its contents nothing more than a handful of sounds, a couple of beats and just another album. Many will interpret the move as a charm offensive intended at recapturing a long-lost naivete: To a lot of their followers, Autechre have spent the better part of the past decade chasing the magic moments of their early releases, trading in sonic sensuality for a mathematically motivated safety in numbers. This, however, would be a wilful twist of reality: It was never them, but always the outside world that has, occasionally with exasperation, begged for a return of the harmonic hallucinations of Incunabula, the Acid-feverdream of Amber or Tri Repetae's hypnotic groove-skeletonism. Sean Booth and Rob Brown, on the contrary, were perfectly happy with concentrating on perfecting the inner logic of their constructions, which increasingly came to follow the elegance of algorithms and the principles of architecture rather than those of conventional acoustics. If, while doing so, they sometimes confusingly seemed both like scientists and kindergarten-kids at the same time, then this was only consequential: The dream of little boys is to build real-life skyscrapers, after all, not tiny towers made of toy wood blocks.

It is only against the backdrop of this historical excursion that the mostly raving medial success of their two new albums can be gauged. While it is perfectly understandable that they have by now generally become to be regarded as accessible, this reaction has been less informed by actual fact than by wishful thinking. Sure, Oversteps and Move of Ten may be the first Autechre-discs for a long time which you can keep spinning without terrifying your friends or busting a party. On a production level, they celebrate the use of reverb as a compositional device: Almost all of its playfully sequenced bell- and chime-patterns and even some of its spinetingling bass lines and percussive elements are placed in cathedral domes – spaces so vast their resonance is turning into an instrument in its own right – thus emphasising emotional factors and turning towards the sacral and spiritual. But to anyone looking beyond this immediately audible aesthetic surface, both are decidedly as complex and, ultimately, unfathomable as their most recent predecessors.

To put it simply, Oversteps is every bit as typical of Autechre as much less widely loved efforts like Confield or Draft 7.30. Rather than running grooves and harmony through their interactive systems, though, Brown and Booth have subjected melodies to their processual treatments this time. Even though it was published almost half a year after its bigger brother, Move of Ten, disguised as a more straight-forwarded and club-oriented EP, can be considered a pre-study of this approach. To present the idea with utmost clarity, beats have been reduced to stoically repeated loops or even, on two occasions, the most trivial emblem of techno, the four-to-the-floor kickdrum. Themes are introduced and then developed with obsessive precision, either by breaking them apart, running them through an array of digital effects or both. On „Pce Freeze 28i“, this transformation still bases exclusively on timbre, as a jagged sequence is pitched up and down and passed through various instrumental colours, appearing either as a rhythmic figure or a motivic invention. Only one track later, though, this procedure already gives way to far more radical variations: On top of „Rew1“'s muscular stabs, an at first coherent funk-bass is gradually dissected into its upper and lower registers, then flattened out until all that is left is a single subsonic one-note-ostinato and a solitary high-pitched tone, fearfully dodging the punches of the percussive hooks being dealt all around them.

On Oversteps, these procedures have been embedded into deep, fantastical soundscapes – in terms of sonic terraforming, Autechre have rarely sounded as inspired and imaginative. Rhythms are more convoluted than on Move of Ten, droning and fluttering like a turntable continually being sped up and down. But they have consciously been mixed back behind a tonal ocean in which timbres coalesce like watercolours. On its surface rages a constant battle of ideas, with themes washing over each other or simply pushing each other to the back with sheer dynamic force. References to - or perhaps just coincidental intersections with - Gamelan („Known (1)“), Hip-Hop („Treale“) and Dubstep (the massive bass of „St Epreo“) only serve to strengthen the album's overall impression of a psychedelic stream of consciousness, its undeniable tranquility the result of nervous processes mysteriously interlocking and canceling each other out - there is more happening in a random minute of Oversteps than on hours worth of conventional Ambient releases.

This mystery of infinite macroscopic calm resulting from seemingly infinite microscopic chaos leads to the very heart of the work. Oversteps isn't just melodic, it is polyphonic in the meaning of the medieval musical term: Various lines, merely joined at the hips by sharing the same key, are playing at their own tempo and according to their own rationale, occasionally reacting to their environment but without a single one taking precedence over the others. It is a procedure not entirely unfamiliar from earlier works, in which beats and chord progressions were often running in different time signatures. This time, however, the move is more extreme, as the logic of the pieces only reveals itself to those capable of taking in all of the different voices at the same time. Experiencing their simultaneity is akin to appreciating the interlocked voices of a baroque counterpoint - the transcendental modulations of „Krylon“ are testimony to this idea, resembling, in more than one instant, the grace and spiritual harmony of a Bach chorale. Taking the notion one step further still, some of the melodies are broken apart into short sequences and then spread out across the entire stereo image, creating the impression of complex call-and-response patterns.

On other occasions, of course, this elegance is substituted for an almost quirky playfulness – Autechre have never come as close to Ibiza as on the first minute and a half of "d-sho qub", but just when you thought they'd finally gone mad, they drown its happy-go-lucky-tune by submerging it underneath tons of brutal effects. „O=0“, meanwhile, may well be their attempt at a 70s Hammond-Blues-Rock-jam. These are rare signs of humour on an otherwise recognisably serene album, but they point at an important aspect: Even though they may be working with solid steel and non-glare glass, Brown and Booth are more often than not little boys behind their veneer of machinal complexity.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Autechre
Homepage: Warp Records

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