Review Summary: Signaling Inimitable Genius Now
Following Autechre's musical output for the last decade has been unbelievably rewarding for those of us accustomed to their axiomatic oeuvre of brain-bending beatwork, sublime melodies, and tantalizing textures. Unfortunately, it probably hasn't won them any new fans. Neophytes would goggle at Exai's two-hour runtime, elseq's four hours, or NTS's staggering full-shift eight hour length. Hell, part of me was hoping they'd keep the pattern going and release a sixteen hour content dump. While SIGN just barely cracks an hour and at first glance exhibits a much friendlier exterior of up-front melodics rather than the shredded static and ephemeral beat shifts of their recent work, SIGN is by no means a pedestrian affair, nor are Autechre resting on their laurels and phoning it in with a relaxed album of synth work. The duo's influence on the greater music scene at large cannot be overstated; they've always had somewhat of a "your favorite producer's favorite producer" status, but the hallmarks of their style have never been as prominent as now. Imagining the hyperpop abrasion of SOPHIE or 100 gecs without the proverbial giants whose shoulders they stood upon is nigh impossible. For this reason, SIGN's abandonment of the frenetic, glitchy, and artificial approach they've perfected over the last ten years marks a sublime foray into uncharted waters. While there are definitely snippets that feel like a natural extension of the techniques of NTS, like au14's fidgety beat and array of truncated beeps and boops, there is just as much material on SIGN that comes from a completely untapped methodology.
On the surface, many will draw comparisons to Autechre's established "chill" albums. SIGN is just their new take on Amber, on Oversteps. Rob and Sean are going back to their ambient days with the gorgeous pads scattered around Metaz form8, or they're retreading old ground with the synthetic squeals of F7. This is a frustrating and shallow analysis, one that views Autechre's massive body of work with a binary lens of "easy" and "difficult," one that pines for the simpler days of analog hardware and decries their digitally distorted dirges, and above all, one that isn't listening, on a fundamental level. Booth and Brown are masters at creating, adhering to, and developing cohesive sonic palettes, and SIGN is no exception. Amber is characterized by the old school ambient techno 90s WARP artist walking home from a rave as the sun comes up while coming down from whatever psychedelics were taken the night before. Oversteps is almost baroque in the way the duo approaches counterpoint, with clearly delineated instrumentation, akin to Rob and Sean conducting an ensemble. To hear the elegiac tones of si00 and declare it a tired rework of old chillout Autechre is, then, missing the point. The musical DNA of SIGN is informed by the last decade of live jams, the "in-the-box" but surprisingly warm digital sound processing, the quixotic juxtaposition of overwhelmingly synthetic yet deceptively organic, as the heartwrenching melodic line of gr4 would be completely out of place on any Autechre album before this one. And in a way, this is the best summation of SIGN. Only the Sean and Rob of 2020 could create SIGN. They could absolutely hearken back for a nostalgia trip into Amber, or Oversteps, and recreate those sounds deftly and masterfully, but the Autechre of 1994, the Booth and Brown of 2010, neither past duo could even imagine SIGN.