Exai is being called Rochdale duo Autechre’s eleventh album, but thoughts of what exactly counts as an album when talking of this pair are best not dwelt on for long. Alongside the near-dozen LP’s they’ve released since the Warp Records darlings’ formation way back in 1987, there’s also been a slew of EP releases, each clocking in at about an hour.
Exai thinks nothing of doubling that length, sprawling itself out across two discs, and a fair chunk of one’s afternoon. But it certainly doesn’t feel like an album; it’s maddening to listen to from beginning to end, and either displays a complete disregard for the idea of structuring a front-to-back listening experience, or approaches it in a way that’s both so dense and subtle that it’s extremely difficult to spot.
The follow up to 2010’s comparatively accessible Oversteps, Exai is anything but Autechre dumbing themselves down. Clearly the sound of a group so in tune with their own skills that all one can really do is marvel at the sheer complexity of it, their eleventh LP is as thick and expansive as anything they’ve put their name to. What it lacks however is any element of surprise – Autechre launch straight in to bafflingly intelligent polyrhythms and gentle yet sporadically unsettling noise, and stay there, for two hours. Where once they would display a mastery of gradual builds, drop offs or sharp left turns in tempo or melody, Exai operates within a comfort zone – one that’s dazzling, but given the sheer length of this thing, also far from easy to stomach as a whole.
It’s a free, almost off the cuff sound that, if it were the work of some extremely technical rock band rather than fellas with a vast expanse of expensive gadgetry, would bring to mind words as unfashionable as “improvisation” or “jamming”. Perhaps that’s the reason that the aforementioned bolts from the blue are thin on the ground – such things take a vast degree of compositional planning, which doesn’t seem to be the order of the day here. It sounds like two men, venting their art, in a barraging manner whose intellectual magnitude few other than they will probably truly understand.
Such an attitude is reflected in the wholly obtuse track titles – it’s unlikely even they would be able to hum you a portion of ‘prac-f’ if you requested it, just as likely might they be to break in to a section of a number called something like ‘vekoS’ or ‘spl9’. Even naming highlights from it seems like an exercise in futility; what’s going on throughout disc one is repeated across disc two, songs segue into one another with little care for things like beginnings, middles or ends, and it’s tempting to think that – difficult though the task is – listening to it as one, two hour long head-fuck is probably the way in which it’s perhaps best digested.
Yet delving in to one track at a time allows you to focus more clearly on the sheer wonder of their craft; things like the mutant hip hop of ‘deco Loc’ and the crusty, splattering beats of ‘jatevee C’ are total joys when not surrounded by hours of stuff that sounds pretty much exactly the same. For this reason, purchasing the 4xLP edition probably offers a more enjoyable listening experience – Exai could really do with being broken up in to as many chunks as possible. However you choose to approach it though, I’d heartily recommend braving it – there’s always room in one’s collection for records as smart as this, no matter how wilfully difficult.