Autechre's shortest record in a decade is also one of their most beautiful.
SIGN, an acronym whose meaning Sean Booth and Rob Brown will not divulge, was announced ahead of time, just like a regular album. It had standard cover art, a release date and even a "regular" running time (one of the only things revealed at the time was the duration, 66 minutes, which seems unfathomably short for an Autechre release now). Is it some sort of concept album? How could the group who had covered so much ground in recent releases pack their latest statement into just an hour? Are Autechre going back to basics?
The answer to all these questions is both yes and no. To hear the duo tell it, the making of SIGN wasn't much different to their other recent material. The two each possess a copy of the same production rig—a mysterious behemoth of hardware and software they call "the machine"—and email each other bits and bobs, adjusting those bits and bobs together until they feel finished. Other times, they say, they come up with eerily similar things on their own. That's what SIGN sounds like: a unified hour of two one-of-a-kind artists operating completely in sync.
You might call SIGN Autechre's ambient album. The percussive sounds are few and far between, and they create rhythms that are even less legible than the norm for recent Autechre—you won't find much in the way of electro-influenced or hip-hop drum patterns here. Instead, synth notes appear and fling across the soundstage in bursts and spore clouds, surfacing like the shapes you might see if you close your eyes and squint really hard.
The album has a careful, almost serene flow, but there are several head-turning moments that signal this is something different to other recent Autechre output. The first of these comes in on second track, "F7," which springs to life after the meandering intro, "M4 Lema." "F7" is easily one of the duo's most gorgeous songs, and the way the synth notes rise is like watching lightning without hearing thunder, the abrasiveness of the group's past material sanded away. It might remind keen listeners of "known(1)" from 2010's Oversteps. Oversteps is a reference here, as notes ring out in tantalizing clumps and long, sparse constellations, as if being played from a temperamental music box. These notes and chords might sound like The Beatles to any seasoned Autechre fan, though make no mistake: this is still dense, knotty music.
Other arresting moments include "psin AM," with its rare four-to-the-floor kick drum, sounding like a Prince Of Denmark track from 2040. The thick, syrupy sustain notes of "Matez form8" solidify into something resembling a conventional composition, while the heavy rhythm of "au14" sounds like it's knocking against your skull. And there's the silvery synths of "esc desc," which have all the illustrious but slippery smoothness of liquid mercury.
SIGN was mostly finished before the pandemic affected Europe, though there's an undeniable feeling of stasis to it. Unlike almost anything else in the duo's catalogue, it feels self-contained and focused, an album made of variations on a theme—and a single sound palette. In their recent New York Times interview, Booth and Brown downplay the algorithmic aspect of their sound, explaining that they don't make "generative music" so much as they guide their "machine" with constant human input. In its own odd way, SIGN, with its mournful melodies and cinematic approach, is one of the most intentional and direct albums in their catalogue.
In that New York Times interview, Rob Brown said the most revealing thing I've ever heard come from the duo. "One charge that people level at us is where's the emotion? Where's the notes? Where's the tunes? It's nonsense," he says, before adding, "The issue for me has always been that I can feel it. So I wonder sometimes whether our emotions are too subtle for people to pick up on."
While I would suggest that anyone who denies emotion or feeling in past Autechre records isn't actually listening to them, SIGN is a more composed record from a duo whose work can often seem inscrutable. After spending almost ten years pushing their art to the limits—in its expansiveness and its volatility—they've pulled back and made a distillation of their boundless sound, painting in pearlescent textures, emotional landscapes and gentle rhythms. It still sounds like music from the furthest reaches of the galaxy, but after three decades of getting to know Sean Booth and Rob Brown, the feelings wrought in their work have never been clearer or more heart-rending than on SIGN.