Credit: Autechre
by Michael Doub Music Obscure Object

Autechre | SIGN and PLUS

January 18, 2021

Autechre’s mass and density hasn’t changed so much as has its distribution of those welcome, riveting qualities.

Only in the world of Autechre could the enigmatic, intergalactic goth etudes of SIGN constitute easy listening. But such is their uniquely audacious and demanding project. The long-running electronic duo’s previous studio release, 2018’s NTS Sessions 1-4, was eight hours long, and they have followed it with 26 live albums and a 2-hour compilation of 30-year old material since. To be overwhelmed by the mass and density of Autechre as a project is increasingly the only way the band allows listeners to experience them. And then there’s the music itself — more often than not, a challenging maze of mechanized sound. SIGN, by contrast, is melodic, straightforward, and just over an hour long. Where NTS Sessions was bruising, SIGN’s synth pulses skew gentler — opener “M4 Lema” moves with a kind of magisterial grace, while the gradual unfurling of the track “Metaz form8” manifests an emotional weight. Though SIGN’s glacial sense of calm isn’t unprecedented in the Autechre catalog (their first two albums, along with 2010’s Oversteps, are new age antecedents of sorts), this break from the band’s recent trajectory makes for an uncharacteristically accessible gesture. Even SIGN’s more percussive tracks (“si00,” “au14”) are content to click and shimmer rather than punish — such is Autechre’s commitment to sustaining the album’s restrained, subdued mood.

Of course, things with Autechre are never so simple, and 12 days after SIGN’s release, the duo surprise-released PLUS, another hour-and-change of (mostly) new music. Compared to SIGN, PLUS is more eclectic — half tonality-shifting, percussive excursions, half miniature versions of the techno balladry of SIGN. This is by no means a detriment; the comparatively more experimental thrust of PLUS is, well, a plus. Take the album’s centerpiece, “X4,” whose original version (from NTS Sessions) built to a combustible conclusion; here, the track burns brightly first, before winding down into unexpected quietude. (Eerie closer “TM1 open” charts a similar path.) Elsewhere, the necrotic crawl of “marhide” is practically a Ghostmane beat, metallic punctuations through a thick haze, while “iipre esc” is perhaps the most overtly dramatic offering of anything on PLUS or SIGN. That this one-two punch release arrives itself as a supplement to Autechre’s marathon radio sets for Mixcloud from earlier this year — generous, 12-hour collections of ‘80s rap and electro — is proof positive that the band has only barely pared back the sprawl of their work, pivoting to smaller serving sizes, perhaps, but supplying those in abundance.

Published as part of Album Roundup: Oct. – Dec. 2020 | Part 3.