As fans rejoice at Aphex Twin’s return, Getintothis‘ Jonny Davis ponders whether Richard D. James’ latest project, Syro, can live up to the hype.
It seems strange the way that with the passage of time certain words lose their original meaning. Whether through gradual dilution or outright ignorance, definitions can lose their bite, purity and subsequently their relevance to the future generations who adopt them. Throughout the early 2000’s ‘indie’ became such a word, espoused carelessly in reference to any old predominantly guitar-toting band regardless of their ethos, connections or (lack of) commitment to a DIY path.
Although it could be argued that classifications such as this are more weighted towards the aural qualities their current and future proponents possess, this argument stumbles upon shaky ground when confronted with artists whose purpose is to sound like a band on an independent label, but have no aspirations themselves to adhering to an organic method of musical existence ie. signing to a major label and spending the kind of cash usually reserved for the capitalist elite. In light of the sudden news of an imminent new Aphex Twin album, it seems a fitting time to revisit the definition of one such dispersed ideological classification; punk.
Readily defined as an anti-establishment figure willing to cause outrage and subvert the norm in an attempt to discover new ways of existing, a punk is a person who consciously sits outside of the system with which they are presented. Originality should be considered one of the principal virtues of a punk.
Taken in its purest form, the argument for Richard D. James being a contemporary punk has considerable weight. From his persistent refusal to forge a coherent lineage of sound, to his plethora of aliases and alter-egos, James works like a complex enigma re-coding his language again and again to evade categorisation. Trawling through his mountain of pseudonyms is a treasure hunt as littered with gold as it is with lies, bullshit and in-jokes. Search any name from the following list and you’re heading down a rabbit hole of dummies, feints and sidesteps.
AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, Mike & Rich, Bradley Strider, Power-Pill, GAK, The Tuss, Blue Calx, Brian Tregaskin, Smojphace, Karen Tregaskin, Patrick Tregaskin, Martin Tresside, PBoD, Q-Chastic, Dice Man, Soit-P.P, Universal Indicator, Phonic Boy On Dope, Pritchard G. Jams.
Tales of living on a roundabout at Elephant & Castle, owning a tank, DJ-ing with sandpaper and only agreeing to remix a Madonna track if she grunted like a pig on it are perhaps bettered by his rebuttal to a critique by Stockhausen no less: “I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: Digeridoo, then he’d stop making abstract, random patterns you can’t dance to”. James doesn’t give a shit, which is what gives his heart-stopping, emotionally delicate and undeniably human music such gravity in a world of measured PR campaigns.
It’s been thirteen years since the release of Aphex Twin’s last album. Druqks is a glitchy, twitchy, beautiful beast that, for perhaps the first time, violently divided opinion about the quality of his output. To many it became lost in the sea of IDM of the time, the proponents of which are now on nobody’s lips. Yet over a decade on, Druqks seems as relevant as ever, rising above the waves to occupy its own space in the ether. Sampled by Kanye (somewhat controversially it would seem) and soundtracking a raft of documentaries, the blend of minimalist piano and whiplash time-stretched beats can be spotted everywhere from mainstream pop to niche critics choices.
Following this bold double album (the second of his career), the techno-inspired forty-two track Analord series saw James indulge himself and test his fans attention spans in the process.
Then, nothing. Not a peep. Silence.
The years passed with occasional rumours of activity that consistently led down cul-de-sacs. In 2010 he teased to Another Man Magazine that he had six albums completed, but gave no indication of if or when they would be released, claiming that he prefers to keep the best stuff to himself. Then, out of nowhere, 2014 became his year. One of just five physical copies of the decade-old unreleased album Caustic Window appeared on Discogs with a whopping price of $13,500. The uniting power of the internet and the excitement and fervour of music fans thus combined to launch a Kickstarter fund to buy the record and digitally distribute the eagerly anticipated album to the contributors. As an interesting side note, the original record proceeded to fetch $46,300 on ebay from the creator of Minecraft, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson. As visceral and thrilling as expected, Caustic Window served as catnip to his loyal addicts.
On 16th August 2014, a blimp bearing the Aphex Twin logo and ‘2014’ appeared hovering over London with reports of similar graffiti across New York. Excitement levels went through the roof as the music press grappled with the meaning of this beacon of hope. Two days later, his official Twitter account posted a link to a deep-web page accessible only by Tor that provided details for a new album, Syro. Designed by Warp favourites The Designers Republic, the album artwork reads like an invoice for the associated costs of the album release but with ridiculously low figures providing another subversive twist.
— Dazed (@DazedMagazine) August 19, 2014
On September 4 the first taste of Syro dropped. Beginning with a familiar 2-step shuffle, minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] soon begins to take shape with recognisable touches of classic Aphex techno and buried, robotically altered vocals. The most striking aspect of the piece is it’s relevance to now and the recent past.
Overtones of the sun-soaked balearic disco that engulfed late ‘00s summers are permeated with a vocal that’s distinctly Thom Yorke in Aphex Twin mode, showcasing an almost nostalgic symmetry to the song. Whilst it doesn’t blow the doors off, minipops is just that – pop, albeit through the James kaleidoscope. It’s rich, catchy and beautifully produced, hinting at perhaps a new openness to influence.
Only time will tell whether the quality of Syro will live up to the hype and whether its release means the beginning of a new chapter in the beguiling career of Richard D. James. What is without question is the impact James has had on the landscape of music.
If software flung open the doors for anonymity in music, then James laid the blueprint for how to utilise this privilege of modern times, weaving through the cracks of an ever growing need to share the minutiae of our lives. Artists from Daft Punk to Burial have utilised the creative potential of a faceless existence for both personal and aesthetic reasons – a path no doubt paved by the distant presence of Aphex Twin.
With his influence felt dramatically amongst contemporary music (electronic or otherwise), it will be fascinating to hear if and how Aphex Twin has adapted to the complex musical climate of today. The rise and rise of streaming services are changing our methods of consumption, whilst the vinyl backlash is going full steam ahead.
With much of his work often regarded as years ahead of its time, will Syro serve up a new sound world the likes of which our ears are at present ill-prepared for? Or will it whiff of Chinese Democracy – overworked and devoid of relevance.
So far so pop. Whatever the outcome you can be damn sure of one thing – he won’t give a fuck what you think.
Top 5 Aphex Twin
For the purposes of ease in narrowing down such a large catalogue of music we’ve decided to neglect the many alter-egos of Richard D. James (however popular some of them may be) in favour of his work as Aphex Twin. This list may seem obvious to some, but will be the perfect entry point for the uninitiated.
Ageispolis – Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92
Soft synths glisten in the distance behind a slow, subtle hip hop beat, whilst the wandering bassline remains consistently inquisitive however familiar it becomes.
Rhubarb (Fan name, officially untitled) – Selected Ambient Works II
Described exquisitely by one Amazon customer reviewer as “like Christ’s ascension to heaven”, Rhubarb is 7:44 of pure ecstasy – the perfect distillation of the ambient sound that pervades the album.
4 – Richard D. James
Aphex Twin does pop. Perhaps the most likely song to prick the ears of the uninitiated, 4 enlists lush strings and a catchy synth line to worm its way into your stock of idle whistling fodder.
Vordhosbn – Drukqs
Simultaneously lucid yet skittish like half-remembered flashbacks, Vordhosbn sounds like 4am soaked in narcotics.
Windowlicker – Windowlicker [single]
Perhaps an obvious choice but it would be ignorant not to include a song of this calibre. With a video that highlights his collaborative relationship with director Chris Cunningham, Windowlicker features 127 uses of profanity, a dance routine in the rain and a cast of scantily clad women masked with the many grotesque faces of Aphex Twin.