After the maximalist, convoluted rhythmic bombast and textural prickliness of Autechre's '00s output, it's not too surprising that they've delivered a relatively refined and largely beatless new album, Oversteps (Warp; www.warp.net).
It may have occurred to the English duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth that they ran the risk of spiraling up their own asses were they to continue to follow the labyrinthine path of greatest resistance on which they've been journeying since, oh, 1997's Chiastic Slide. Autechre may have realized that their genius-level mechanistic complexity had reached its apex with releases like Gantz Graf, Draft 7.30, and Untilted. They'd purged nearly all traces of what most consider "humanity," and thus sought with Oversteps to bring a warmer, gentler tone to their music. Or perhaps Brown and Booth just did whatever the hell they wished on this, their 10th album, as they've done for nearly two decades, conventional notions of linear development or logical progression be damned. Whatever the case, Oversteps is simultaneously a shocking and expected tangent in Autechre's massive canon.
Oversteps' opener "r ess" begins with 25 seconds of silence, then gradually fades in with what sound like analog-synth whorls from Lard Free's cyclotronic space-out "Spirale Malax." Immediately, Autechre grab your attention through subtlety, before bringing in understated, tinny snares and muted kicks. The synths eventually swell and decay with much drama. As the disc progresses, it further emphasizes the rarefied tonalities and abstruse melodies of avant-garde composers Bernard Parmegiani, Morton Subotnick, and Iannis Xenakis over Autechre's usual rhythmic origami.
"known(1)" possesses the stately air of Wendy Carlos's late-'60s/early-'70s work and even features what sounds like a piano, albeit a prepared one, coupled with what could be a calliope warped into weezy agony. "pt2ph8" tumbles slowly and with oblong trepidation down a darkened corridor that Coil once haunted. "qplay" and "st epreo" revert to more typically irregular Ae meters, but again maintain Oversteps' tonally eerie calm. "see on see" is as heart-flutteringly pretty as Cluster's Sowiesoso
. "O=0" lightly tweaks gamelan for the Mutek-fest set. "Treale" is a weird species of laggard, Boards of Canada–esque funk that's unlike anything in Autechre's oeuvre. "Yuop" angles for screen time in the imaginary sequel to A Clockwork Orange. And so it goes on Oversteps; Ae forge mostly novel territory, a rare feat for artists this late in their career.
At 71 minutes, Oversteps offers much to digest. And, as with nearly all Autechre releases, it will probably take several listens to coalesce in your mind. (It hit me hard on number five.) Your persistence will be rewarded.
If Booth and Brown had a pound for every laptop lackey who bit their steez, they could retire with a six-figure nest egg. Oversteps, though, is a baffler that probably won't instigate another wave of imitators. However, it could be the start of a new phase for these veterans of enigmatic creativity.
This story has been updated since its original publication.