Autechre astounds with five-part release ‘elseq’

Autechre copy
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Grade: A-

After three years of letting 2013’s Exai settle, British electronic music duo Autechre has released its 12th studio album. To call the online release highly anticipated, or even long-awaited, wouldn’t really match the stride of the group’s public image. elseq 1-5 is a 21-track behemoth that inconspicuously popped up in the Autechre webstore May 19. Save for a couple of early radio teasers, including one via KSUA in Alaska, the release was silent in typical fashion.  

elseq is Rob Brown and Sean Booth at their most deconstructive and mischievous. It is a combative album in many respects — each track is a new spar between the mechanical and the musical.

Many of these matches begin innocently and evolve into something frighteningly opaque and indifferent. Some of the most sympathetic and warm melodies get continually hammered into captivity by clinical and sterile percussions. The exposition of a tragic song such as “c16 deep tread” introduces genuinely approachable melodic characters who are then murdered excruciatingly over 12 minutes in a post-apocalyptic meat grinder.

The manipulation and evolution of organic sounds across tracks is nothing new for the group, but elseq offers an enthralling new dynamic between these organic players and the more calculated side of their UK garage-house early influences. “c7b2” is another downright terrifying moment — nothing digestible is sacred.

The deconstruction always leaves something beautiful in its wake, and Booth has even cited philosopher Jacques Derrida as a Deconstruction thinker who oftens runs tangentially to what Autechre works at musically.

In elseq, the stubborn science of rhythm is reinterpreted under the ineffability of melody and timbre, and more often than not, it yields some perturbing and beautiful new musical element that hangs around in each song. “spTh,” which sounds like it could be taken off a severely chewed-up J Dilla beat tape, is a moment of this “squaring the circle” effect that ends up working quite well.

Where this collection truly comes together is in how elegantly it pulls off deconstruction but also the reconstruction of certain elements that fall apart or are hammered beneath the surface early on. Some tracks are torn down and don’t really recover but leave interesting and downright moving moments lingering in the gaps. “pendulu hv moda” is an example of the inverse, wherein, out of the stubbornness and grasping for air, a deep-current melody pushes though after nine minutes of struggle.

“latentcall” is a heavy drum-and-bass style track that plays with similar notions of reconstructing a melody out of the muck and mire of scientific rhythms. More than anything, the structures to most of the songs are thoroughly rewarding and trace the outlines of so many recognizable tropes in contemporary dance music and electronica.

A major concern when letting new Autechre material settle is length. Exai was a clear exhibition of long studio improv sessions, and elseq seems to run a similar line. The album is a five-chaptered tome. Clocking in at just over four hours, it outlasts Exai — their longest at the time — twofold. That said, it is much more palatable than many of their shorter projects.  

elseq certainly has length in the back of its mind. It plays with length — even mocks length — but the collection ultimately has no concern in developing full-circle tracks that need a time limit.  Its concern is mostly with theme and how to allow likened themes of tear-down build-up competitions emerge in hugely different tracks. These tropes may take nearly 20 minutes to flesh out on one track but will also mature in eight minutes on another. And to make the reception of these themes more bearable, they’ve simply entertained more interesting melodies than some of the more banal stuff on Exai.

elseq fits in an odd spot in the Autechre discography, which reaches back to 1987. It’s not a genuine dance album, like Anti EP was in 1994, and it’s not really a huge experimental avant-garde feat, as Confield was in 2001. The structure to many of the songs can genuinely be classified as hip-hop.  

Ultimately, elseq 1-5 is a conflation of many previous styles that dance and fight with one another. The result is a landmark album, a work that’s thoroughly interesting and enjoyable for anyone willing to invest the time: 247 minutes and 38 seconds, to be exact.

Contact Charlie Tidmarsh at [email protected].