Artist: Aphex Twin
Released in 2014
Calling Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, a genius is no bold claim, for it is a largely self-evident one. A self-described “music maker” since his early teens, James has remained unclassifiable while reworking or just straight-up inventing dozens of genres: acid house, glitch, drum and bass, garage, prepared music, ambient techno, ambient ambient, the all-encompassing “braindance.” He does funny-scary things with his face, plastering it on album covers, children (see the “Come to Daddy” EP and music video) and big-breasted women (ditto “Windowlicker”). He grants few interviews or public appearances, letting the work, and that grin, inspire the obsessive, odd-humored introverts that are his fans.
Yet James’ genius has very much to do with his music, more than his place in and around it. That aesthetic range defines individual Aphex Twin songs as much as his more obvious leaps of style between albums: “Girl/Boy Song” riddles spritely oboe and strings with tommy gun-fast polyrhythms to unexpectedly poignant effect, and that similar chill-crazy tension animates “Alberto Balsalm,” perhaps his most beautiful achievement. Even the songs that repeat ambient motifs over and over, like the 10-minute “Stone in Focus,” don’t do so aimlessly: They provoke mounting introspection as the patient (and again, probably introverted) listener navigates the song’s, and their own, vastness. For all his irreverence, there is arguably no electronic musician as sensitive as Aphex Twin, no one as committed to expressing his interiority through jagged and supple sonic landscapes.
Which brings us to Syro, Aphex Twin’s first studio album in 13 years. This is a satisfying hour-plus of music, visceral and industrious in ways that make you perk your ears and cock your head askew. After almost two dozen listens, I am convinced opening track “Minipops 67” starts before you press play — there is something so insatiable, so slick to its drive that anticipating it becomes as pleasurable as listening. At the end James incants warbly nonsense, through countless filters of course, and it works because that song’s foundation is already so beyond the limits of intelligible language.
Some, like my roommates and Sun colleagues who have been subject to repeated Syro blastings, will want nothing to do with this music. If Aphex Twin does not compromise to popular trends — even the bumping rave track, “180db_,” sounds like a feral cat got hold of the knobs — he’s not making new ones with this album, either. There’s no formal breakthrough on the level of Richard D James Album opener “4” or anything from Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 or 2. Syro is a perfection of existing Aphex Twin elements, the whole myriad of them, but it is unlikely to speak to the unconverted.
Poor them, then, because this is the rare album to grow with each listen. On “Xmas_evet10,” Aphex Twin lays down a palpitating drum machine beat and plays with a Guitar Center’s worth of instruments on top of it: out-of-tune upright piano, milky synthesizers and, for a blissful five seconds at the 3:40 mark, crunchy paradiddles. You could say Aphex Twin is just messing around with his reported 138 pieces of gear for 10 minutes and 30 seconds, but the seamless way he phases in and out different sounds gives shape to his madness. Compared to the formulas of most EDM, Aphex Twin’s compositions are almost classical.
“Produk 29” starts in thick funk mode before introducing creepy, Twilight Zone-esque keys and flaring synthesizers. “Circlont14” fades in on a sparse, celestial soundscape straight out of Forbidden Planet and devolves into rancid glitches and bleeps and bloops that Sun Managing Editor Tyler Alicea ’14 saw fit to describe as “crazy robot sex” (sad to say he wasn’t a fan). After shredding through some extremely technical scales, “Syro U473t8+E” (how fun are these names?) finishes on a fuzzy, groovy outro that I swear features a police whistle once or twice. In every song, Aphex Twin covers a staggering swath of sound that is ecstatic in its excess.
Two tracks near the end of Syro call on the past in order to build to something new. “Papat4” pulses with the bubbly energy of the best off 1995’s …I Care Because You Do, riding on uplifting ambient texture and, naturally, gnawing it apart with filtered vocals and hyperactive breakbeats. But if that song mashes together its predecessors, then album closer “Aisatsana” whittles them down.
Reminiscent of drukqs pieces “Jynweythek” and the Kanye-sampled “Avril 14th,” “Aisatsana” is a triumph of restraint. With birds chirping outside his window, James sits at his piano and repeats a few permutations of a simple minimalist melody. He allows each phrase to fade to near silence before starting the next, whereupon a little pressure applied to keys breathes life into another world of unconsummated expression. Indebted to Cage, Satie and Chopin, the song is also pure Aphex Twin, for it approaches clarity only through the extremities of sound.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.