Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Music Review: Autechre - Oversteps

"It’s become evident, nearly ten years after the fact, that 2001's Confield left Autechre's Rob Brown and Sean Booth reeling; the duo found themselves adrift in the splintered early aughts electronic landscape, with little idea how to move forward. After all, that seminal record essentially brought IDM to its most logical and extreme conclusion, and it remains Autechre's last significant full-length—it’s no wonder they’ve been restlessly trying to find their bearings ever since. For almost two decades, Autechre have been at the forefront of electronic music’s development, and just as we think we may have finally digested their last work (2008’s exhausting Quaristice), they’re back with album ten, the comparatively serene and ambient-leaning Oversteps. Since Quaristice wasn’t what anyone would call 'easy listening'—an unrelenting 20 tracks comprised its 75 minutes—it comes as something of a relief that Oversteps (its title perhaps an admission to Autechre's post-Confield excess?) plays just as well on a casual listen as it does under closer scrutiny.

Oversteps is an attentively and painstakingly constructed record, which is always nice to see in an age where many electronic efforts settle for willfully amateurish production. But it's still very much an Autechre record, and one stylistically similar to arguably their most fascinating early effort, 1994's Amber. And despite the relatively more palatable sonic environment, Oversteps doesn’t necessarily evidence a continuation of the ideas first presented on Amber (probably not what was intentioned anyway), nor does it totally commit to its ambient impulses, establishing it as another interesting but ultimately unenlightening album in what feels like a continuing series of conceptual works with little of the formal advancement so often characterizing their 90s output. None of this, however, should take away from the fact that Autechre are still just about as good at constructing enveloping quasi-industrial beatscapes as any group from IDM’s golden age. It's just that, for the most part, these impulses are weaved modestly into the framework of the record’s more textured passages, such as the twinkling “O=0,” or the more generatively inclined “qplay.” Consequently, those still looking for a return to the more streamlined techno of yore could potentially be left wanting.

Perhaps it’s just the desire of a forever-yearning ambient heart, but I tend to find the less tethered pieces on Oversteps to be the most engaging. Opener “r ess” methodically whirs to life, creating evocative overlapping synth tones before finding its footing, while mid-album standouts “os veix3” and “redfall” foreshadow the record’s later turn toward dark ambiance. It's Autechre’s idiosyncratic approach that renders critical appraisal ultimately rather pointless; thus, it’s hard to imagine many diehard Autechre fans being especially disappointed by Oversteps. Objectively speaking, this is one of the band's most well-rounded releases in some time—I just personally found more to enjoy down the blind alleyways of Quaristice. This could have something to do with the fact that drone and ambient tend to carry some emotional weight, whereas Autechre are just about the coldest, most cerebral electronic act going, rendering most of their recent material procedurally impressive but affectingly limited. For better or worse, Oversteps is certainly a record that will take another couple years to fully digest; and, in that sense, it’s perfectly in line with their restless creative output. My hope is that there will come a time when just 'good enough' is no longer simply good enough for Autechre." [71/100]
[Published 04.13.10]


Graham said...

I never thought Autechre were cold, there was always plenty of emotion there, but not necessarily the kind of emotions commonly present in other music.

Stereo Sanctity said...

Fair enough. I guess to clarify, the coldness I'm referring to is in relation to their more heady recent material. By contrast, the more identifiable human elements present in their 90s work lends those particular albums a more 3-dimensional vibe. Different approaches, sure, but slightly more inviting just the same.