Autechre’s music is brazenly abstract. I don’t use the word “abstract” as a warning, just as an acknowledgment that the unique pleasures offered by albums like Draft 7.30 have an airy and intellectual substance to them. The music behaves according to human tropes: tension and release, obedience and rebellion, the imperfect repetitions of imperfect memories; but it doesn’t feel human in any conventional sense. You don’t feel the familiar warmth of standard instruments, and you don’t feel the comfort of knowing that actual hands and feet are physically producing the sounds you hear. You don’t know whether the compositions were charted out in real time or generated automatically by a mysterious piece of software. Sean Booth and Rob Brown have a relationship to technology that is so thoroughly organic that their work can’t seem anything less than foreign. Most composers aren’t as willing and able to dive so deeply into the soul of computers and produce music that, as metallic and abstract as it is, writhes with vitality.
Autechre’s music is brazenly experimental. For at least a few years of their career, “experimental” was best understood as a warning. Starting in the late 90s, but continuing to an even greater degree after the turn of the millennium, Autechre produced tracks that were driven by a restless spirit of improvisation. Their songs would start out sharp and confident, bearing the skeleton of rhythm but lacking the soft flesh of melody, comporting themselves with a clear but distant idea of groove. Then, over the course of several minutes, they would tear themselves to pieces before wandering off into the distance, bewildered with the completeness of inner transformation, stunned in the spirit as if a revolution had just occurred. Autechre’s experimentation has been violent, and it was violent for years, contorting sound into shapes that would feel jarring and unwelcome in any other context, including their own early albums. It wasn’t until 2008’s Quaristice that we saw them back off from those forbidding, 8-minute marathons that deconstructed and reconstructed themselves, learning instead to embrace a manner of improvisation that has remained daring and unique without sounding so ruthless and ascetic.
Sean Booth and Rob Brown have brought melody back. That might be the single most important thing about Oversteps, their newest Autechre album. Its highlights are not, like the explorations on Draft and Untilted, daring pieces of architecture, but pieces whose soft edges and subtle, multilayered melodic contours feel human in a way that may evoke an eerie nostalgia in longtime fans. Their track titles remain stubbornly meaningless, but take note of “known(1),” “d-sho qub,” and “st epreo,” which all hearken back to the early days of Warp Records, when home-listening electronica was a new idea and the sophisticated compositional edge of acts like Autechre, Polygon Window, and Black Dog was like a little oasis in a world that was preoccupied with overreaching itself and drowning out the past with empty innovations. That isn’t to say Autechre’s music has suddenly become self-satisfied or backward-looking; their counterpoint may not be as loud and assertive as their beats, but it’s every bit as restless and alive, and just as antagonistic toward exact repetitions as high school English teachers are toward plagiarism.
Of course, anything I say about these tracks seeming soft or human might be completely lost on a listener coming to Autechre for the first time. The textures here are soft, but that means a lot more when you are an outfit with something like Gantz Graf lingering in your past. Tracks like “see on see,” “O=0,” and “redfall” go beatless, letting their overlapping, cascading melodies tell their own complex story of becoming without needing to resort to the blunt trauma of percussion. But peace’s flipside is desolation; there are other songs that float by without really living lives of their own, like extras in a film.
Like Quaristice, Oversteps takes its time fading in and out from silence, being bookended by long and uneventful stretches of sound that are as gradual in their development as a sunrise. Autechre have always dealt with a wide scope, from their all-encompassing use of frequencies to their eclectic range of influences to the large-scale formal migrations of their more adventurous compositions. When you combine this love of breadth with an insatiable curiosity for technology, it explains why Booth and Brown always seem to be operating on uncharted territory. This album has its ups and downs, its highlights and dead stretches, but if these guys wanted to sound safe and well-balanced, they should have stopped making albums 15 years ago. Their developments are nothing if not honest, even if the gruff, muffled intimations of hip-hop sound awkward or antagonistic, even if the softness of these pieces evades any conventional sense of emotional directness.
The extroverted and violent streak of Autechre’s early last decade is being turned inward. You might not be able to feel the human element in what they are doing, but if you are patient and attentive, it might stop seeming so foreign, a little like your own thought processes, operating freely from the encumbrances posed by the physical world, expressing themselves gradually but vitally, with a little more peace and a little less violence.