The last time a studio album from electronic music titan Aphex Twin had circulated, fans were left more in a state of confusion than one of awe. Drukqs, Richard D. James’ 2001 project as Aphex Twin, was received as a disjointed and unorganized collective of odds-and-ends tracks, featuring everything from elegant, computer-programmed piano miniatures to speed demon electro breaks that rode on acid bass and blistering drums. Many longtime fans had hailed this as James’ biggest risk with his greatest reward, and others felt like it was the most ill-fitting and incongruent hodgepodge of tracks thrown together since Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind. Regardless, dubiety arose over what some saw as a neat jigsaw puzzle with many unique pieces that fell nicely into place, and others saw as the pieces from several puzzles haphazardly thrown together, the Aphex Twin name and project would become dormant for the next decade. While sparse musical outings as either the Tuss or AFX would appear under the radar to the mainstream that he had worked so hard to win over in his 1990s heyday, the absence of a proper Aphex Twin release had caused heavy speculation that his more “serious” career was over. The mentality gradually became that there would be no more chart-topping pop anomalies like “Windowlicker,” or industrial rockers like “Come to Daddy.” However, after a neon green blimp flew over East London bearing the Aphex Twin insignia in August, curiosities piqued. It was then announced that September 23 would bring fans Syro, a new studio recording of recently composed material.
On an initial listen, the best quality Syro has is its ability to draw on the established canon of sounds in electronic music and still make it sound fresh. While many of the older trademarks of acid techno, jungle, drill and bass, and IDM manifest themselves in thick, squelchy basslines or intensively dynamic percussion that has difficulty deciding on a mood, the overall production quality of Syro gives it an au currant air in today’s electronica landscape, which is radically different from when Aphex Twin released most of his studio output, the 1990s. Newer listeners will not be comparing 1995’s I Care Because You Do to the manic drum patterns of Squarepusher or the textured pads of Boards of Canada, because they will be more impressed with how his stylistic innovations with percussive synthesis influences today’s trap rap scene or how the instrumentation choices in his piece “Girl/Boy” spawned an entire microgenre of artists like World’s End Girlfriend and Kashiwa Daisuke that have made careers trying to blend electronic glitch with busy orchestration in an attempt to revitalize the modern classical scene. Syro does not try to reinvent the wheel or turn electronic music on its head; it simply brackets some of the qualities of Aphex Twin’s best music in what may be the most well-polished and well-produced record of 2014.
James’ ear for harmony becomes especially apparent in tracks like “minipops 67” and the title track, where blocks of synthesizer chords take the lead before bringing them to a powerfully pronounced cadence. “XMAS_EVET10” provides countermelodies in a sea of synthesizer pads that can ease into new directions or change on a dime. “950tx16wasr” serves as an example to a familiar RDJ sound in terms of what specific synth pad sounds are used and how they are covered under a swift glitch-y drum beat, but unlike many of his past compositions, the chord progression feels fluid in terms of how it flows instead of jarringly throwing out new ideas that surprises the listener. Peeks at distinct Aphex Twin eras certainly shine through at times. The dissonant and out of tune synth leads that appear on “180db” feel like they would fit in nicely on his 1997 EP, Come to Daddy. The chopped and screwed vocal samples on “CIRCLONT6A” fed through various distortion effects and filters are typical Aphex Twin at this point. However, this particular tracks also brings that rejuvinated feeling of freshness to the table like the rest of the album does in how it crescendos into a chorus-like section of countermelody pianos that duel with bass and guitar as glitch drums continually drive the section. Its possible sequel, “CIRCLONT14” takes the same theme of tampering with the human voice until it no longer resembles the human voice, and it pairs it with fat acid bass grooves and ethnic percussion that are placed neatly under synthesizers passing through multiple oscillators and filters. Both pieces are like opposite sides of the same coin, with the former ending in sheer regality and the later creating an uneasy sense of urgency. “aisatsana,” the album’s closer, is also the record’s black sheep in the sense that it is not a travelogue of moods or a smorgasbord of various synths. Compositionally, it attempts the same soothing temperament through slowly-changing chord progressions as seen on his first two albums, Selected Ambient Works 1 and 2. Only this piece uses a computer-controlled Disklavier piano, with an end result similar to some of the lighter pieces on Drukqs, like the infamously Kanye West-sampled “Avril 14th.”
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Syro’s release is that Richard D. James describes it not as the finale to a prolific musical career, but the first of many new projects to come. In a recent interview he did with Rolling Stone Magazine, he said, “I’ve got a few more things planned—at least a couple more albums, some EPs, things like that. Some more dance-y things I did about ten years ago. They’re all pretty much ready to go.”
Often lauded for his versatility, James is known for his proficiency on a number of instruments from piano to voice, as well as his unconventional production skills, casting a variety of software and hardware components to do everything from build a drum beat to instruct robots on how to play real-world instruments. This ambitious level of musicianship can be dated back to childhood curiosity about music and sound. In a 1993 interview with Simon Reynolds, James detailed his curiosity prior to the age of ten, saying “I used to play with the piano, do things with the strings inside, rather than play tunes on the keyboard.” This transformed into his learning of more conventional piano technique and playing before he started purchasing analog synthesizers to take them apart and learn how they work in his teens. His extended education brought him a two-year engineering degree from Cornwall College in 1990, which optimized his bank of hardware knowledge and allowed him to fuse what he taught himself with what he was taught by a professor on how different devices work. In 1992, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was released on R&S Records, unanimously considered a milestone in computer-produced music and ambient music alike across the board by critics from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork Media to Spin, all giving this record a nearly perfect score. From here, James’ discography would include plenty of curveballs as he would try to embrace as many styles of music as possible and recreate them under his own guise of electronic music. Citing Terry Riley, John Cage, and Can as primary influences, he would go on to release a second collection of ambient works, pieces driven by breakbeats with heavy focus on synthesized percussion, tracks that utilized live instruments played by him, and even tracks using live instruments he coded robots to play.
Fast-forwarding back to 2014, here is what the musical landscape looks like for electronic artists. From Skream and Burial’s early experiments to its signature Skillex wobble bass sound, dubstep has been in the mainstream for quite some time, often leaking over into Top 40 pop music. Electro house has been experiencing a revival as well, with artists Madeon and Zedd making waves with their innovations and projects often done in workstations like FL Studio or Ableton Live. Aphex Twin has made a new statement with Syro, a tightly-assembled collection of pieces that showcase just a handful of his many talents, from his creative beat-making to his singing and piano playing. Make no mistake: electronic music may have never had a more exciting time than today.
Jeffrey Holmes is a third-year student double majoring in English and philosophy. He can be reached JH791223@wcupa.edu.