Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp/Maple)
Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James: the enfant terrible of ’90s electronic music, the game-changer, the mad genius, the magical misanthrope, the man who made Radiohead’s Thom Yorke want to burn guitars. He’s been largely laying low for the past 13 years, living in a Scottish hamlet and raising two children. Apparently he’s kept busy, building robots in his backyard and making a lot of music that only now is seeing the light of day. Naturally, his legions of fans are ecstatic to see him return. What about the rest of us?
I’ve never cared for Aphex Twin in the past. Yet I love this album. Has he changed—or have I? (We’re the same age.) It’s natural for an innovator to sound benign two decades after first turning tables (or turntables). It’s entirely possible that Aphex Twin’s influence—digitally deconstructed beats and tones that can sound randomly generated to the untrained ear—is so far-reaching that we now take it for granted. (His ambient work, on the other hand, not heard on Syro, is a direct extension of Brian Eno’s early ’80s records.) The avant-garde of electronic music today is still catching up to what Aphex Twin was doing in the late ’90s. EDM owes James an enormous debt (see: Skrillex), even if it takes the most obvious aspects of his work set to punishing disco beats. Meanwhile, mainstream pop has become stranger and stranger, to the point where it’s not hard to hear the evil sonic sorcery of James at work there as well.
Squiggly bass, spasmodic rhythms, melodies as fleeting as jazz improvisations, played on alternately soft and distorted synthesizers—Aphex Twin weaves various discombobulated layers together to make something dense yet danceable, distant yet strangely seductive, despite the fact that it’s near impossible to detect a human hand at work anywhere here. The tracks are apparently named after some of the gear he uses, decibel levels he recorded at, or what seem like gobbledygook file names (or intentionally unintelligible passwords).
It’s tempting to wonder—especially when some ’90s jungle breaks surface, in mutated form—if James just dusted off some unreleased files from his heyday and passed them off as a new album; something his contemporary Plug did a couple of years back. But the tracks on Syro display a maturity, a confidence in which James doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything to anyone or even himself. There’s no need to be oppositional for the sake of it; there’s no envelope to consciously push against. Left on his own, in that small Scottish village, the mad musical mind of Richard D. James doesn’t have to compete with the noise of the world. He’s already changed the face of music; now he can sit back and enjoy it. So can we—some of us, for the first time.
Download: “180db,” “Minipops,” “CirclonT14”