It feels like Autechre have smoothed out a bit since the days of Draft 7.30 and Untilted. On their last two albums, they pulled back from the mathematics and rediscovered the beautiful yet alien sense of melody that marked their earliest work. But it was hard to know what to expect from their new one—just that it was going to be big. It comes as no surprise that the Manchester duo's 11th album proper is a double-disc behemoth. But that doesn't make it any less intense.
I've always seen Autechre albums as the world's most intimidating jigsaw puzzles. The pieces are laser-cut into nonsensical angular pieces, and there's always about three million of them. Their songwriting has long avoided Western musical standards, and never is this more apparent than on Exai's first track. "Fleure" is brief (for Autechre), but also remarkably dense. Once you make it through the inclement barrage of broken drums and screeching feedback, you're plunged into the cutting static of the 12-minute "irlite (get 0)." The prospect of two hours of this stuff begins to look more and more like a chore, until, about halfway through "irlite (get 0)," the bottom falls out into a pastel daydream of melting chords.
Exai feels completely random, offering nothing to grasp onto other than jagged shards of barely recognizable sound. Even that slight respite in the chill-out tent quickly sends you free-falling back into the hurricane. But like a particularly spectacular storm, there's a whole lot to see (or hear) if you can withstand it. What initially seems impenetrable opens itself up into a mind-boggling world of intricate detail, in usual Autechre fashion. You won't catch the little flickers of brilliance unless you put yourself right in there to endure the brunt of it all.
Then again, if you're listening to this band in 2013, you're likely an Autechre veteran, accustomed to the flurries of ones and zeroes, but this one feels even more like data overload. While most of their records have had some sort of singular concept that keeps the tracks bound together, Exai has the two tackling the entire Autechre history with whatever software toolbox they're using now. They tap into Incunabula-like radiance on "jatevee C" and appropriate stuttering dubstep with "tuinorizn." Their hip-hop allegiances are clearer than ever, from Bomb Squad to Brainfeeder on the muscular "T ess xi" and the gentle "deco Loc," respectively.
It's hard to know what to take away from Exai after the ambient "YJY UX" fades to a close. In some ways it feels like they've got more of a grip on what they're trying to do than they've ever had. On the other hand, the only real cohesion is its resistance to linearity and conventional melody. If you don't get it, Exai might seem like a bloated blob of pretensions. If you do, however, you might have found your holy grail. For those of us in between, it's like that aforementioned jigsaw puzzle: confounding, occasionally satisfying, and forever keeping you guessing as to what image its shapes are trying to form.