After years in which they followed their own twisted logical path further and further away from their relatively warm and linear “IDM” beginnings, Autechre’s 2005 LP Untilted ended with a sixteen minute ball of rhythmic knot entitled “Sublimit”, its beats wrapping furious trails around each other faster than the mind could follow. Where would they go next? Well, 2008’s Quaristice didn’t seek so much to unpick the complexity of their previous work it as to cleave it into tiny pieces. With hindsight it is easy to see that twenty track album as a transitional work (albeit a fascinating one), enabling more focused exploration of a number of ideas – and not all of them rhythmic. Ideas of texture, and – for the first time in ages – overt melody seemed to be things they weren’t averse to trying out. Could Oversteps take these shards and fuse them into something new?
That question, where they go next, means that new Autechre albums are – increasingly – highly anticipated events. The release of Oversteps was preceded by them dropping a hip-hop heavy FACT mix, a twelve hour radio show which managed to mix some of their own classics by tracks from Tangerine Dream, The Fall and Herb Alpert, and some gigs in which they played nothing but filthy low-end rhythms; all of these were scoured for clues. A fake “leak” of the album even found its way all over the internet, its qualities being thoroughly dissected before it was pronounced – with a heavy sigh – to be of non-Ae origin. Perhaps inevitably, nothing in any of this would have given you any indication as to what Oversteps actually sounds like.
After Quaristice‘s slow fade into empty silence, two years later Oversteps‘s equally gradual rise back up from the void quickens the heart. Even more excitingly, that opening track “R Ess” sounds like nothing else they have done. Synths fizz and roar in a huge echoing well, while the beats, much to the fore in their later work, are far less prominent, some scratchy two-step crawling into the gaps in the brickwork. Indeed for much of Oversteps, beats are entirely absent, with Autechre opting to explore a set of landscapes suggested perhaps by some of the short textural pieces on Quaristice, as well as some other very specific reference points, and ones which I certainly wouldn’t have expected. The gleaming surfaces, exotic-sounding keyboard lines and haunting minimal feel bring to mind David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, from Japan’s Tin Drum through Yellow Magic Orchestra to their collaborative efforts on Sylvian’s early solo work.
This mood pervades through much of the record, from the metallic shimmer of “Pt2ph8” (as you can tell by now, there has been no change in the impenetrability of the titles) to the disarmingly gentle “KrYlon”, and results in a real curator’s item – an Ae piece that you can just about whistle. Over the Eastern-sounding keyboard melodies of the superb “Known(1)” floats an alien vocal line, an unintelligible high-pitched smear – well, I say alien, it could easily be replaced by a Liz Fraser part. This shouldn’t be mistaken for any sort of retrenchment to their early sound; the attention to detail, the layering of subtle elements, is far more developed than it ever has been. So fascinating is it all that when they do unleash a flurry of interlocking rhythms, and the likes of “Ilanders” and “Qplay” scatter them like only they can, I’m almost, almost, disappointed. The electronic whip-cracks of the latter sound almost too familiar in contrast to the freshness of the rest of the album, like they are there just to show that they can still do it when the need arises.
No doubt some devotees will be scratching their heads at the seemingly straightforward nature of Oversteps, confused even by the lack of confusion. But by shifting their unmatched focus on rhythm(s) to other sonic aspects, it seems to me that Autechre are emerging perhaps into a third creative era, and one that could be their most rewarding yet. Oversteps exceed all expectations.