Autechre’s music frequently sounds like it is spontaneously generating itself, as though the machines have been left alone and are making sounds for their own entertainment. But in fact, to hear the two men who are Autechre — Sean Booth and Rob Brown — explain it, their inhuman-sounding tracks are in fact the result of something very much like jamming, albeit a version of it that incorporated social distancing long before that was a thing. They’ve worked separately for years, sending software modules and patches back and forth. For those who don’t know what that means (as I’m not sure I do, fully), they write little bits of code that allow synths and other sound-generating machines to do what they want them to do, or go nuts in interesting ways.
Sometimes they don’t work together at all; as Booth explained in a 2018 interview, “All the albums, I don’t know what the proportion is exactly, but there are more solo tracks than there are tracks that we both worked on at the same time. Or we’d swap projects, you’d end up with a half-finished track and hand it over to the other guy. It’s just when you’re doing it with patches, it’s way more interesting, because you’re not stepping on the other guy’s toes by erasing or changing things because… [it’s] a lot more flexible, so there’s quite a lot of room for fuckery.”
SIGN is Autechre’s first album qua album in seven years. That feels wrong, of course, because there’s been an absolute flood of material released since 2013’s Exai. There were 10 complete live sets from 2014 and 2015, each consisting of a single hour-long piece; the five digital-only volumes of Elseq; the NTS Sessions, broadcast on radio then released as an eight-CD or 12-LP box; an additional two dozen or so live sets; and the archival Warp Tapes 89-93, a two-volume, two-hour DJ mix of their earliest creations. But each of those releases felt like a data dump more than anything else, and Booth and Brown have admitted that the NTS Sessions, for example, contained material created as far back as 2011. SIGN, on the other hand, has the traditional structure of an album: 11 discrete tracks with beginnings and endings, 65 minutes in all, with enough sonic commonalities to feel like a concise and cohesive work. And it’s some of the most human music they’ve ever made.
It begins slowly, as though picking up where “all end,” the hour-long NTS Sessions closer, left off. There are rumbles, and soft buzzes like someone tuning a radio, and distant hums and zaps. Things seem to start, don’t, then try again; after 90 seconds or so, a shimmering bong starts to appear amid the static and distant booms. It’s like someone trying repeatedly to boot up a recalcitrant desktop PC. Finally, the music congeals, the bell tones becoming an almost Tangerine Dream-esque melody as a hip-hop beat thumps underneath and the robots zoom back and forth, buzzing and crackling in the sky.
The next track, “F7,” arrives fully formed. The synths are anthemic, as close to arm-waving house music as Autechre’s ever gotten. All it needs is drums, but of course there aren’t any. That would be too easy. There is a beat on “si00,” though, clomping along just fast enough for discomfort underneath swoops and pings that recall the kosmische synths of Klaus Schulze. Halfway through, a throbbing wave of sound begins to surge and recede through the track, washing over everything else.
The longer it goes on, the more beautiful SIGN seems to get. The robotic, post-human feel fades away, replaced gradually by a real sense of two men trying to communicate to each other across distances both geographic and emotional. Beatless tracks like “Metaz form8” and “th red a” have a kind of searching grandeur, while the steady thump and hypnotic swoops of “psin AM” resemble Autechre auditioning for a spot on one of the Kompakt label’s annual Total compilations. And the album’s closing track, “r cazt,” sounds like one of the solo pieces Booth described in 2018; it could be one man sitting in a room full of synths, slowly picking out melodies that suffuse what would ordinarily be shimmering, sunlit tones with a melancholy that’s hard to put your finger on, but impossible to ignore. It allows the listener to slowly drift back to awareness after having been sunk in Autechre-world for an hour. It’s as close to the work of Daniel Lopatin as anything in the Booth/Brown catalog.
The two members of Autechre have been making music together for a little over three decades. Together they’ve ventured about as far into abstraction, into pure patterned sound, as any musician has ever gone. It’s not just that their drum machines don’t sound like drums; they don’t even sound like any other drum machine you’ve ever heard. But SIGN sounds like they’ve reached the end of this particular journey — they’ve traveled as far out as they can and are now coming back, to rejoin humanity. I don’t know about you, but I definitely didn’t see a quarantine soundtrack album coming from Autechre. That said, they’ve already told journalists they finished working on it in February, after a creative process that lasted more than a year. So somehow they predicted the emotional landscape of the last seven months and counting, and provided an ideal soundtrack — subdued, languorous, but still somehow warm and even welcoming. By Autechre standards, anyway.
SIGN is out 10/16 on Warp. Pre-order it here.