As one of the IDM pioneers of the early ‘90s, Autechre have been crafting mind-bending projects for the past thirty years. After a departure from their initial, synthesizer-rich, techno-based sound, the duo has consistently revolutionized electronic music with each release. Their last, NTS Sessions 1-4 (2018), was by far their most ambitious. The computerized jam session comes in at a combined eight hours in length, and finishes itself off with a track one minute short of an hour long. It brought their decades of musical experience and innovation to a peak that many, including myself, were curious to see if they could surpass. But with their newest effort, SIGN (2020), they put their overly-complex, drawn-out side away, and return to the simplest aspects of their music, while still managing to create another unique addition to their discography.
The trend that dominates the majority of this record is their habit of using empty space in almost every single track. When looking back to other albums of theirs, specifically Incunabula (1993), and Tri Repetae (1995), it was hard to find a sustained break from their synthetic melodies, but SIGN is composed through a series of fragmented ideas, that are often separated by periods of silence, or subtle, uncluttered moments. This is made clear off the bat with the intro, “M4 Lema.” The first two minutes are just distorted, fading transitions between a variety of noises; none staying for more than a few seconds. The rapidity of these various sections eventually coalesces into a full track after finding a consistent, echoing background tune, but nevertheless continues its sporadic nature until its finale, seven minutes later. The nine minutes feel incredibly short for the amount of ground covered, just as this record does, in its quick sixty-five minutes.
The biggest feature that exemplifies this is the lack of fluidity between individual tracks. Not a single space is occupied between two songs on this record, often-times creating a highlighted pause before the next one begins. Even through fade-ins and fade-outs, none of the features are strongly connected from the one prior, or following, either by swapping the instrumental focus, or overall tone. But despite this truth, it doesn’t subtract from the impact of the individual tracks. It simply adds to the feeling of brevity surrounding this release as a whole.
While it may lack a common thread linking each melodic thought, the inherent separation surrounding each cut allows for each song to shine on its own, and creates a diverse listening experience that isn’t typical of a standard IDM release. For example, the second piece, “F7,” is a return to some of their older musical ideas, layering numerous synth lines of varying pitches over one another to craft a constantly-flowing, rather-colorful journey. Immediately after it is “si00;” a spacious, trippy environment of bubbling plastics and erratic, bouncing beats. Rather than relate itself to their own music, it’s more reminiscent of something out of Matmos’s 2019 record, Plastic Anniversary, or an old underwater level from Metroid. “esc desc,” while instrumentally similar to “F7,” takes the layering a few notches up in intensity. The pitches follow a slower pattern of motion that when combined with the dynamic, pulsating bass, create a building emotional grandiosity more important than the melodies themselves. No matter which song you focus on, there are several aspects unique to it alone, that make it fun and interesting in the context of the rest of the record.
The uniqueness displayed here through the individual songs isn’t always confined to the context of this album, but is surprisingly different when compared to their other thirteen studio albums. “Metaz form8” could easily be a C418 track due to its extended, lo-fi piano chords, but is specifically stylized to fit Autechre with its beeping, buzzing, futuristic, AI-like features. The progression of the track is the most ballad-like entrance in all of Autechre’s discography, that I’m aware of. “th red a” and “psin AM” both hit with a beautiful simplicity not frequently found within Autechre’s skillset. The first is a repeating sequence of gorgeous, electronic chords that somehow fill a seven minute bubble with outstanding effectiveness. Then, “psin AM,” is maybe the smoothest Autechre track I’ve ever heard, not relying on complexity or abrasion, and instead, solely going off of subtle, silky-but-harrowing echoes. It also runs over six minutes long, but doesn’t lag at all.
With a clever subversion of several different expectations, SIGN brings all of the patterns of Autechre’s growing musical complexity to a halt. The short runtime of only one hour, the separation of each musical variant, the dilution of each idea down to a few traits, and the unconventional level of accessibility are all rarities for the electronic duo. But despite all of that, it manages to come together into a high quality exploration of new, enjoyable melodies. For a band that thrives on complicating all they can, SIGN is a welcome simplifier that doesn’t sacrifice its quality, and proves even thirty years into a career, you can still make great changes.