Album Review: Autechre "Oversteps"

There are few musicians whose music is as polarizing as Autechre. It would be one thing if they were resolutely in the experimental music camp. The avant-garde have their audience, who embrace abstraction and difficulty, and revel in sound only marginally less random than brownian motion. But Autechre occupies a strange middle ground between the experimental and the popular; at the outset of their career they made music that was occasionally accessible, at least within the context of the early 90s ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ that bloomed in the penumbra of UK Rave Culture. They soon pushed beyond any sort of recognizable ties to any genre of popular music, alienating a new cohort of fans with each release. Over eight albums, and more EPs than I had the patience to count on, they’ve bobbed and weaved into and out of abstract electronica, instrumental hip hop and rave music. It’s hard to greet any new Autechre release with any initial reaction other than bafflement — it takes some listening to determine if they’re being brilliant or annoyingly obtuse, or both at once.

“Oversteps” is a phase transition for Autechre back into relative accessibility. I’m giving them pop points for keeping (mostly) a recognizable pulse, usually in 4/4 time, and cleaving (mostly) to traditional Western harmony. This is a good thing for a couple of reasons. First, it means the listener is never left without a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. Second, it means that they’re not letting their Aleatory Automation completely determine what’s happening. I’ve always thought I can tell whether machines or people are making compositional choices. While I might be fooled by especially clever computer programming that can pass a musical Turing test, I rarely think human-driven music seems arbitrary and pointless. People can and do make awful music, but at least there’s a human connection attempted even in their worst efforts. I’d rather listen to a human being imitating the sound of an Aeolian Harp than to the wind playing one. Even a human trying to sound random on purpose is more interesting than an actually random performance.

The track “known1” perhaps synthesizes Autechre’s conflicting impulses to be abstract and to convey some human emotion. It opens with a looping minor key progression that could conceivably be performed by a human on a piano. About 90 seconds in a splattery, nasal counterpoint comes in and follows the general outline of the chord progression. As this higher sound falls out, there’s a B section that plays once through before again being visited by the splattery counterpoint. Employing what sounds like Karplus-Strong plucked string synthesis, the traditional harmony are subtly subverted by a subtly “wrong” scale tuning and inharmonic overtones.

“Pt2ph8” follows with a pentotonic clattering underpinned by a plucked bass. One would never accuse Autechre of conventionality in the structure of this track, but there is a couple of chord changes that signify to me a yearning melancholy as effectively as they would in a folk song. You can hear the random processes at work generating the off-kilter ornamentation, and yet they’re employing some overall macro control to pace and shape the sounds. There’s some drama to the pacing and satisfaction in the denouement, even if along the way there’s plenty of busy randomness.

The album opener “r ess” starts with a 30 second fade in that sounds like dead air for at least 20 seconds. The piece crawls slowly up from the noise floor, into what sounds like the ambiance of an East German train station, where a disorganized orchestra is playing through broken public address speakers. Gradually a beat totters in, replete with un-quantized swing and polyrhythms, only to trail off as vague tones fade in and out.

“ilanders” signature gesture is a long-form, swooping minor key bassline artfully distorted against (also artfully) distorted drums. The distortion is in the foreground of this piece, pulling your ear along with its continually variable texture. I know – sort of – how they achieve this effect — a combination of waveshaping distortion and frequency modulation — but they manage to make it sound interesting, and even attractive in its own mutant fashion. This means something to me because I know how to achieve something similar, but not how to do so in a way that isn’t just ugly and annoying.

“Oversteps” as a title seems to suggest that the pieces that comprise this album are somehow instances of going too far, or maybe that they are meant to convey the unsettling sensation one gets when miss a stair in the dark. I imagine this would be an apt reaction for someone who has never heard Autechre before. I’ve been listening to them for their entire 17 year career, and to me, “Oversteps” pulls back from the precipice a bit, and gives listeners some actual musical pleasure in return for their time. With these guys that isn’t always the case. Autechre is incapable of not being interesting, but they aren’t afraid to be frustrating. Some of their music makes you wonder why you bother even to listen, since they’re obviously are keeping whatever it is the music means to themselves. But “Oversteps” does not leave me feeling unsatisfied or cheated. It is certainly not for everyone, but in all the right ways, it seems like Autechre have deigned to stand quite a bit closer to their audience and even look them in the eye this time.

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