That Autechre’s Sign is their best album in a very long time is both confusing and true. For the past five years, they’ve mocked the album format. For starters, they’ve released thirty-five live shows since 2015. How should you describe that? Leak thirty-five albums? Give you the chance to buy thirty-five files? A hundred years ago, bound volumes of 78-rpm records came to be called albums because they imitated photo albums—a collection of individual items. And this, very fucking unexpectedly, is what Sign feels like.
This has not been the vibe for a minute. A lot of the recent Autechre output has been a celebration of the big, fat unshackled ponder, the great idea sent boinging down the can for ten minutes and then popping out of the combine. The thirty-five live shows came to us on top of the 2016 “album” elseq 1-5 (which lasts four hours and feels like ten) and the 2018 four-volume “album” NTS Sessions (which goes on for eight hours and feels like six). These are folders, not albums.
Then something happened in the last batch of seven live recordings, known descriptively as AE_LIVE 2016-2018. (Those looking for a starting point can try DUBLIN_150718.) All of the digital hail and crackles began to congeal, as if trying to fit into a new and particular space. That space turns out to be Sign.
I spoke to Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown at the end of July about the album.
“I hadn’t felt that solid about putting together an album in a while,” Booth said.
Sign is trim and rich and has something like a face. It wants to be an album. It reacts well to being played over and over. The difference isn’t obscure—it’s the presence of melody and harmony, variables the duo hasn’t paid attention to in ages. Almost every track on Sign works around some relationship between pitches and an audible line of progression. It feels as if they are pulling us back into their orbit just as they are pulled back into it. Sign flirts with disintegration but only lightly, throwing its weight into a smooth ravine lined with translucent panels and reflective tape, a river of light running below the wind of turbines.
“We started building up the rig in the summer of 2018, right after the Australian tour,” Booth said. Using MAX software, Brown (in Bristol now) and Booth (in Manchester) design modules and patches which they send to each other. In layman’s terms which may still be slightly reductive, the duo write code that creates ways of modifying and triggering an array of synths and sound-making machines. By combining an almost infinite variety of small mathematical formulas, the two can liberate their machines from the tyranny of the even-tempered scale.
“The MIDI keyboard only handles a very limited set of information,” Booth says. “And it’s based on the piano, a very specific instrument from a very specific time. We’re just using MAX to be more compositional in what we do.”
The duo worked on tracks for over a year, finishing in February of 2020, before lockdown. What they made is dense and airy and demonic and agile and fairly calm, as Autechre goes. The album begins with “M4 Lema,” full of ovoid screaming burps, those pretzeled envelopes of rising and falling tones that streak through much of elseq and NTS and AELive. It’s that thing they do nowadays. “M4 Lema” does all that velociraptor yelping and then starts zooming about on large glassy plates of synth. It’s a Godzilla bust-up in an electrified gummy castle. It’s also a bit like “ninefly” from NTS Sessions, a strangled bag of sliced kicks and feedback spikes that keeps flirting with a harmonic structure but rejects it. There are also formal approaches common to their whole catalog, like that burp, as well as the 80—110 BPM canter of hip-hop, warming their abstractions like a brick oven burning through their curtain of PVC netting.
“We’d get in touch and it would turn out we were doing the same kind of thing, without even talking,” Brown said. “I’m not sure we could do it in the same room now. But we’re often thinking the exact same thing.”
“Ah . . . that’s lush—fuck.”
This album seems as good a moment as any to suggest that some musical history of hip-hop is inaccurate, for some obvious reasons. Autechre falls outside the Black American music spectrum in every way, except at the formal level of the music, which presents a sticky reality. There is no doubt there would be no Autechre without hip-hop and there is little in Sign that disavows its historical links. Sign is hip-hop, if we see hip-hop as a deeply rooted system of growth and language and construction, so pervasive that it can be felt more easily than seen. It is not necessarily helpful to say that Sign is hip-hop, but it is also true and confusing.
“We’re not clever or brave,” Booth said. “We’re b-boys at heart. I always wanted my tapes to be the best tapes, to have my mixes be the best mixes, but I know how much of a weirdo I am. I didn’t know anybody who heard sound the way I do until I met Rob.”
In 1983, when dirty machine sounds drove songs like Word of Mouth’s “King Kut” and Jonzun Crew’s “Pack Jam,” the English assembled those songs and renamed them “electro,” a catch-all that contained both machine-heavy hip-hop and the more elastic Detroit dance music, like Cybotron. These producers were turning drum machines into alarms and finding ways to sample before sampling, splicing tiny lengths of audio tape into rhythmic and textural patterns, creating the “stab” before it was even technically possible to trigger sounds physically, in time. Autechre’s story is part of this larger story of pushing the machine, reinventing the pause button, inverting the turntable, reaching inside the piano, manipulating the stuff of sound, and ripping up bits of cardboard to create a dancefloor.
As teens in the Eighties, Sean Booth and Rob Brown circulated in and around Manchester, writing graffiti and buying records at Spinnin’ and listening to Stu Allan on Piccadilly Radio. Over the course of their thirty-year career, there have been many descriptions of Autechre’s music that use words like “indescribable” and “illogical” and “fractal,” none of which are poor choices but all of which lack the necessary historical context. Autechre obviously don’t make anything that is culturally or formally like hip-hop but it is the practice of the b-boy that informs what they do now and have always done. In the mid-Eighties, Manchester’s own teenage bedroom DJ Paul Mulhearn turned the pause button on his tape deck into a precise mixing tool, forcing consumer gear into a compositional role. In addition to all the cultural and spiritual work that hip-hop enabled, it changed the relationship of musicians to their gear and what gear even was.
“The piano is beautiful but it’s dumb,” Booth told me. “It separates the artist from the string.”
The least interesting but most indicative thing I can say about Sign is that I’ve listened to it over and over since I got it, more than anything else that came out this year.
Trying to convert the lurkers to paid. That said, there will never be a paywall. Enjoy.