Return of the Aphex Twin
From the perspective of the techno scene in 2014, Richard D. James, better known as the Aphex Twin, hails from another planet. Then again, in terms of the depth of his vision, the scope of his creativity, and his pre-social networking disdain for conventional self-promotion and the trappings of stardom, he always has.
During his heyday in the’90s, James often was described as making the techno equivalent of Nuggets-style psychedelic garage rock—incredibly organic electronica, owing as much to the “found sounds” of Stockhausen as it did to digital technology—but he never was easily pigeonholed, and that description ignores if not slights the beauty of the ambient work that also has long been part of his mix.
Born in Cornwall, England, in 1971, James began experimenting with sound as a child, dismantling and rebuilding the piano in his parents’ living room. He discovered house music via a tape that a friend brought back from Chicago, and by age 13, he already was crafting similar tracks using reel to reel tape recorders and old analog synthesizers that he built or customized himself in between performing menial jobs like ditch-digging. Tape hiss, crackles, pops, and unidentifiable electronic bleeps, burbles, and glitches are all part of his music’s charm, as are the sounds of improvised instruments.
“I’d say to my friends, ‘Pick any object in the room and I’ll make a track out of it,’” James told Option magazine in 1994. “I’d make complete tracks out of Coke cans and carpets. Coke cans are easy because they have a lot of good acoustic characteristics, but with things like carpets, it’s very difficult to get a bass drum sound.”
Slower and spacier than more hardcore rave music at the time, James’s grooves function as well on headphones as they do on the dance floor, and he’s been hailed by many aficionados as techno’s premier sonic genius, though he never achieved the mainstream success of first-gen peers like Moby, Fatboy Slim, and the Chemical Brothers, much less modern stars such as Skrillex or Deadmau5. His best-known track remains “Didgeridoo,” which used electronic sounds to duplicate the drone of the Australian Aboriginal instrument, prompting a flood of DJs incorporating other ethnic instruments at the time, as evidenced by the old Wax Trax! compilation, Ethnotechno.
Watershed ’90s releases such as Analogue Bubblebath, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (which marked his signing to Sire/Warner Bros. during the brief window when techno was marketed as “the next big thing” after grunge), …I Care Because You Do, and 1997’s Richard D. James (by which point he was dabbling in jungle) remain essential listening for anyone who cares about electronic music, drawing on predecessors such as Stockhausen, Can, Cluster, and Eno while simultaneously pointing at a future that still hasn’t been fully realized. (The Aphex Twin can deliver a more varied sonic palette and a more exciting listening experience on one track than many artists who fill arenas today provide in an hours-long set, all with a singularly twisted sense of humor.)
Sought after by the likes of Beck and Nine Inch Nails to work his remix magic back in the day, James was wary of stardom and the hype machine, and shortly after the video for “Come to Daddy” began generating MTV airplay, he announced his retirement, saying he planned to focus on running his independent label, Rephlex, while making music primarily for himself and a small community of online devotees. And with rare exceptions—2001’s drukqs, the last recording released under the Aphex Twin moniker—that’s exactly what he’s done.
The question now, then, is not where James has been, but why he’s chosen to release music again as the Aphex Twin, initially trumpeting its release via the Deep Web and on a blimp flying over London. (I said he was against conventional self-promotion, not all self-promotion.) Inscrutable as ever, he really hasn’t explained. Does he want to teach the kids a thing or two about ambition? Remind us that his worst day was better than their best? Claim a piece of what he helped start now that it’s the new mainstream? All or none of the above? I couldn’t begin to hazard a guess; I’m just glad he’s back.
Recorded over a period of years in various studios, including his home base in the Scottish countryside, Syro is a collection of 12 mostly instrumental tracks that are typically dense, ever-evolving in moods and styles (from jungle to ambient), and both resonant of the artist’s rich past and pointing toward new directions in terms of the sonic ingredients (the most notable addition: treated vocals from his family members). The titles are, apparently, meaningless—“4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26],” “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]”—but the music certainly is not, comprising a movie of the imagination with the voices of James, his wife, his children, and his parents evoking the soul in the midst of the machines, or perhaps the battle to maintain our humanity amid the overwhelming post-industrial digital onslaught.
Always challenging, sometimes very funny, and alternatingly warm and welcoming and frightening but thrilling, Syro is a welcome and much-needed reminder of what this genre is capable of at its very best. And some of it you might even want to dance to.
Aphex Twin, Syro (Warp Records)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.