Autechre – SIGN (Warp, 2020)

People have always remarked on the fact that I’m “not very emotional” and some variation on the perception that I’m grumpy or irritable at something on a regular basis. It’s one of those incredibly annoying things to hear because I know myself that I’m very inwardly emotional but not always particularly expressive of it, and don’t feel especially compelled to pretend to be something that I’m not. It strikes me as slightly odd too, since I’ve always felt I laugh quite freely and make jokes regularly, but of course people don’t see that, they only remark on the negative traits.

Over Autechre’s 30 years of music making a somewhat similar criticism has been levelled at their work: that it sounds robotic or mechanical, alien, devoid of life and emotion. Largely it seems like this again is by people that are unwilling to think about what’s going on below the surface, or be aware of what’s in front of them, or actually apply themselves in perceiving emotions beyond only the explicitly happy or sad.

Admittedly Sean and Rob don’t make this task easy for people, and across their sprawling discography Electronic music is pushed to its limits of listenability and even understanding at points. Solid beats, rhythms and melodies are all-too-frequent transients within their pieces, tracks regularly shifting gears through IDM, Techno, Glitch experimentation. Conventionality is a dream, danceability just momentary occurrences, accessibility sometimes stretched.

In amongst the variance and excitement, however, there is life, there is feeling. Their records are astonishingly organic and dynamic experiences, and not just at a holistic level; things can change in microseconds, textures synchronise and desynchronise at minute and discrete time-steps, and each listen reveals amazing depths and changes of character not-before-seen. You just don’t know what you’re going to experience, where each musical sentence is going to lead.

With the dizzying expanses of Elseq and the NTS Sessions behind us, it’s surprising perhaps then that SIGN marks a shift in approach to something more… well, approachable. Not because anyone told them to (much like when someone tells you to smile, or cheer up, or be more animated, you feel like you want to do the exact opposite of what they’ve requested), but because they can, because it felt right and wow does it feel right.

This is a record that isn’t just more openly melodic than most of their previous material in the last decade, it really gives time for tracks to breathe and let them run their emotional, cathartic course. “esc desc” feels like cool star-lit cruising, gorgeous synthesis pouring out in shapely slow-motion arpeggiation, like grids of Starlink satellites grazing the inky suburban sky.

Deep interior “Metaz form8” retains “esc desc”‘s fuzzy ambience and elevates it, warm shimmering mirages of tones humming like Shruti Boxes, drifting cloud banks hugging the ground. We feel airborne, spikes of chords stabbing into our airspace like skyscrapers rising out of the fog on final approach. It’s the most explicitly Ambient piece they’ve made in years, at least until closer “r cazt” comes along with its spacious drama. Jabs of reverberant synth poke through the long dark, searchlights of hope probing tentatively for signs of life in the ruins of shrouded noir civilisation; all too on the nose.

Gentle “gr4” is the last of the smudged tracks, beautiful in its elegiac lasers and pitch-shifting electronics. The sound of digital painting, intangible pixels of human expression lain down on backlit screens in sure but wiggling strokes.

Energy is not entirely absent though; sophomore “F7” breaks through the somewhat unstructured courses and voided opener “M4 Lema”, brimming with flashing and pinging strobes of sound. It has a feverish vibe to it, like seeing the oscillating lights of an ambulance from the backseat, the insistent flicker of fluorescent lamps buzzing past set amidst the darkness.

Its progeny “si00” reduces the world to just our little bubble, its Techno excitations pushing the outside into aqueous distance. “au14” has curious machinations as well, bouncy erratic beats and squiggles of tendrils worming their way out of loam. It has an odd urgency, as though trying to make as much progress as its slight form can manage before night or Winter sets in, an industrious lifeform battling the intractable march of time.

Wherever you go one thing’s for certain: SIGN is absolutely overflowing with not just feeling but its desire to express itself in the most current, refined forms it can. SIGN doesn’t just want to be heard, it wants to make it plain that more goes on under the surface than you normally perceive, somewhat simplifying the tumultuous streams of thought and emotion that normally are left undisclosed or undetected. It is between the lines music, the honest response to “what are you thinking about” or “how are you feeling” that normally goes unanswered.

To be different is to be misunderstood, and I sympathise with Autechre. Yet we may still provide opportunities for insight at a level others might comprehend, and in doing so, shock and surprise those who were unable to appreciate previous articulations. SIGN is one of such moments, and should rightly be treasured for it.