I hope that when Autechre finally calls it a day, Sean Booth and Rob Brown vanish so completely they'll make Thomas Pynchon look like the biggest media whore the Western hemisphere has ever seen. It's nothing personal, but simply that anything the two might think of doing as a follow-up—whether as individuals or in new group formations—will invariably seem woefully anti-climactic coming after such an illustrious run under their shared guise. Autechre has rightfully earned its status as a singular entity, a group in a class by itself—even if it's spawned a regrettable number of imitators. It's interesting that, like Monolake and only a handful of other groups that emerged in the ‘90s, Autechre still exists as a significant artistic presence, rather than one fading into irrelevance or coasting on previous glories. Indifferent to musical trends and emergent styles, Autechre rolls on, pursuing its insular vision as it issues the next chapter in its semi-regular gathering of new material.
Oversteps shares certain qualities with the group's previous work. Detractors will no doubt sneer that the duo's maddeningly inexplicable track titles once again appear and that the duo's intentions are as opaque as ever (the temptation to write the review in similarly inscrutable prose is tempting but ultimately self-defeating)—best not to waste time or energy on such trivialities but instead focus on the music, which is alive with immediacy as opposed to off-puttingly cryptic. Here as in the past, the typical Autechre track is a restless organism that mutates from beginning to end. The idea of grounding a piece in an unchanging beat pattern is anethema to Booth and Brown, when every moment presents another opportunity for change and development. Having said that, the new material strikes a finely calibrated balance between machinery and humanity.
The first surprise comes with how quietly the album starts when “r ess” emerges slowly out of a microsound fog to blossom into a cavernous mass of electronic haze before settling into a lazy shuffling rhythm pierced by muffled blasts. Initially sparkling like sunlight splintering through a prism, “O=0” features stop-start lattices of chiming synthesizer melodies, while “known(1)” even includes a recurring main theme, and a stately and classical-tinged one at that. Predictably, it's joined by others such that, as complexity sets in, the whole begins to feel ever more ecstatic, as if the wailing melodies are struggling to reach some form of climax through communion. “qplay” congeals into some quasi-rhythmic workout of whip-crack lashes and bass ricochets, “Treale” finds Autechre flirting ever more openly with conventional song form with a recurring synth theme blazing over a head-nodding pulse rooted in hip-hop and funk, and “d-sho qub” likewise digs deeply into a powerful funk groove, even if the moment passes quickly and the track shifts its attention to a more abstract array of electronic strafings and firings. Rigorous organisation and sponaneous invention go hand-in-hand, and each track straddles twin concerns for open-ended exploration and compositional coherence during its four- to six-minute duration.
So much happens in any given track that trying to capture it in words proves more than a little challenging. The typical Autechre construction is like some alien yet still flawlessly manufactured feat of engineering, or perhaps it would be better to liken it to brain activity where a constant, rapid flow of firing synapses and electrical activity occurs. The temptation is to invoke musique concrete, minimalism, and whatever other movement one feels compelled to name-check but ultimately none of that matters. Yes, of course, Booth and Brown have absorbed their fair share of Stockhausen, Varèse, Günter, and all the rest but citing influences helps little in coming to terms with the uniquely strange material the duo produces. Some might bemoan Autechre's decision to pull back from an even further plunge into abstract experimentalism and instead re-embrace a more melodic style that features, at least in part, synthesizer sounds and electronic gear that one could identify if one were so inclined. I'm tempted to think Booth and Brown are never so calculating as all that but instead follow where the music takes them at any given time—Oversteps simply happens to be where the group is now, and any critical determinations as to how it fits into the band's discography is something the two probably could care less about. One final note: being so dense and detailed, Autechre's material can become exhausting in large doses and as such the album's seventy-one-minute running time begins to feel long when one moves into its final tracks. Fifty-five minutes of the group's fractal cubism would be easier to absorb.