Everything You Wanted to Know About Aphex Twin But Were Afraid to Ask (Before Today’s Release of ‘Syro’)
If you happen to be a music fan who relies on music fanatics for guidance, there have likely been numerous times when the chatter feels so foreign and incomprehensible that you’re just left to yell at someone, “It’s like you’re speaking another language!” And this is one of those times. Observe:
“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]” (syrobonkus mix)
“4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]”
“XMAS_EVET10 ” (thanaton3 mix)
I can assure you that our HTML is top-notch and those are not broken hyperlinks. They are song titles, from what is certainly the most anticipated record of the past few months and, considering the lack of consensus front-runners, one of a handful of records that could possibly compete for 2014’s album of the year on critics’ lists. If you’ve figured out that I’m talking about Aphex Twin and recognized the above as the names of some of Syro’s hottest tracks, this probably isn’t the conversation for you. In all likelihood, you’ve already recognized and expounded upon the genius of Richard D. James’s first album as Aphex Twin1 in 13 years and will find many reviews to corroborate your sentiments; no self-respecting publication is going to give this assignment to a guy who’s crammed in two decades’ worth of Aphex Twin music for a two-day turnaround and is debating how Syro stacks up against the new Alt-J album.
But let’s say you’re the aforementioned fan-not-fanatic, the type of person who realizes that Aphex Twin is one of the most respected and innovative electronic producers ever and that, consequently, at the very least, you owe Syro a good deal of your time as an informed listener. (It officially started streaming Sunday night.) That’s where I’m at, too, and speaking as objectively as possible, there’s a lot to like immediately — there are long cosmic grooves, a worn-in ruddiness to the sound that conflates the analog with the digital. In a way, it’s the most accessible Aphex Twin album; while it lacks a true standout, crossover track, it’s smoother than James’s high-BPM abstractions, but has far more body than his earliest work. The first track is the single, the next one is a 10-minute opus that packs in an EP’s worth of great ideas, and as a whole, Syro makes any sort of task — driving, laundry folding, breakfast preparation, email checking — feel a bit more substantial and futuristic.2
Which is kinda problematic for someone of James’s reputation. Without an ironclad belief in the importance of Syro, you may feel free to enjoy it casually, but then experience a sense of disappointment when it’s met with rapturous applause you can’t quite identify with. It’s a familiar but uncomfortable sentiment: “I wish I liked this more than I do.” This feeling is particularly ingrained in the modern listening experience, when actually enjoying music is inseparable from public broadcasting — with the lack of MTV or radio or any true indicator of monoculture, an inability to grasp something that comes close to consensus in the face of constant hyperbole is somehow your fault. None of this means that Syro is a disappointment; in fact, it’s very good and occasionally great in a way that anyone can understand.
But it’s a much better experience if you don’t go in blind. Here’s a quick primer to help you, or really, us, get caught up on this important moment in Aphex Twin history.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Key facts: This is Aphex Twin’s first “album,” though as the title indicates, it’s actually more a collection than a fluid, continuous listening experience. But the title is also pretty misleading because this isn’t “ambient” music as most people have come to understand it — this actually has beats and a gritty, homemade presentation that lends great insight to James’s modest beginnings, before his personal eccentricities became a load-bearing part of the Aphex Twin experience. If you need to differentiate between this and the equally important Selected Ambient Works 2 (commonly known as SAW2), this is the one that sounds all lo-fi because Aphex Twin’s cat tried to rip the tapes apart.
“We Are the Music Makers”
Key point: This is clearly the successor to Brian Eno’s groundbreaking instrumental recordings, as well as the Orb’s ambient house, and one of the most influential records of its time. Or something like that: It’s the sort of album you probably hear about more than you actually hear.
Richard D. James Album
Key facts: Unlike Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, or Talk Talk — other ’90s acts whose actual or speculative comeback records say drop … fucking … everything — Aphex Twin has never released an album that’s acknowledged as the clear masterpiece that stands above everything else he’s done. Or at the very least, “the one for the n00bs.” But this comes close: I was introduced to Aphex Twin in high school during the late ’90s, when I was hanging with the skaters and such because none of the kids in AP classes watched MTV and BET as intensively as I did. One of the more ahead-of-the-curve guys played Richard D. James Album in between our typical fare of Busta Rhymes’s When Disaster Strikes and Ma$e’s Harlem World. That seal of approval, along with a rare lead review in Rolling Stone, told me as a budding and impressionable music fanatic that Aphex Twin mattered and electronic music was synonymous with maturing (out of rock music).
Key point: If Aphex Twin is a personal blind spot, but you’ve heard basically any Timbaland, any recent Radiohead or Radiohead-influenced bands, or pretty much any bit of electronic music since the mid-’90s, go back and listen to those records — it’s similar to a rap fan seeing Scarface for the first time: “Oh, that’s what they’re quoting from.”3
Missy Elliott, “Beep Me 911”
Key facts: If you’re in a situation where your life depends on trying to explain what Aphex Twin does and you’ve got only six minutes to prep for it, go here — it’s indicative of James’s particular genius for absorbing all forms of electronic music and warping it (pun intended) into his own grotesque image. Soulja Boy raps over it on a Girl Talk album, and it justifies Girl Talk’s entire existence. It has been used in Grandma’s Boy.
Key point: It befits an artist with such an unruly, confounding discography that Aphex Twin’s definitive, unimpeachable work is a single. When Warp Records released its retrospective (and truly incredible) Warp20 compilation, this was voted by listeners as the most popular song.
“Come to Daddy”
Key point: Maybe this is the song that’s achieved the most ironclad consensus among all levels of Aphex Twin listeners, because I can’t think of anyone who isn’t freaked the fuck out by it.
Key facts: Prior to Syro, this was Aphex Twin’s most recent album and first critical flop. Rolling Stone gave it an extremely rare one-star review, which means it’s officially 20 percent as good as the new U2 album. But as these things generally go, it’s become a rallying point for contrarians and a source for hip-hop sampling; naturally, Kanye West got ahold of it and snagged a bit of “Avril 14” for “Blame Game,” though the legality of that sample is up for debate. I suppose Lonely Island asked for permission before making “Iran So Far.”
“54 Cymru Beats”
Key point: Either way, Drukqs is more than a half hour longer than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and mostly consists of abstract piano tinkling. Say the title out loud and it makes a lot more sense.
Key facts: Few labels have the kind of long-standing respect among electronic music listeners held by Warp Records, even though it has signed the likes of Born Ruffians and Grizzly Bear over the years. Though other Warp artists have sold more, Aphex Twin is the act that’s most indicative of what the label actually does, which is releasing forward-thinking electronic music that actually resonates on a mass level; that last aspect distinguishes it from upstarts like Hippos in Tanks, 100% Silk, and other labels that I swear are real.
Boards of Canada,“Roygbiv”
Squarepusher, “My Red Hot Car”
Key point: With all that said, I’ve endured fraternity pledging and a spinal tap, so I don’t lack for patience, but I haven’t gotten through an entire Squarepusher or Autechre album. Moreover, I’m not sure how Aphex Twin should feel about his innovations helping finance Vincent Gallo albums.
Key facts: In terms of the new album’s presentation to the public, Aphex Twin inverts just about every massive, lavish stunt Daft Punk performed in the lead-up to Random Access Memories. But it ultimately has the same effect, anti-hype serving as actual hype. Syro’s press release is unquestionably the greatest ever written, and all critics will agree because it gives credence to their deeply held belief that nobody reads band bios and music PR is kinda pointless.
Key facts: Despite all of the above, the impact and intent of Syro are actually easy to grasp, because fans-not-fanatics have experienced something similar at least three times in the past year alone. As with Random Access Memories, Syro can be heard as a reaction to the festival EDM circuit, for which Daft Punk and Aphex Twin serve as crucial influences — the former’s 2006 Coachella pyramid is basically EDM’s 2001 obelisk, and Skrillex is probably a bigger Aphex Twin fan than Richard D. James. But whereas Daft Punk hired Nile Rodgers, Pharrell, and Paul Williams for a pure, uncut, ’70s-prog-disco opus as a contrast to EDM’s album-averse format, James supposedly just cranked out Syro while hanging with his kids, a demystification that serves as its own kind of mythical origin story. It’s something of a spiritual parallel to Random Access Memories, but a sonic parallel to My Bloody Valentine’s m b v, in that everything from the cover art to the gear fetishization to the grubby-yet-beautiful production makes this album feel like it could have and should have come out in 1994.
See also: Boards of Canada, whose 2013 comeback, Tomorrow’s Harvest, might be the closest analog for what Syro delivers — the Scottish duo are Aphex Twin’s labelmates and likewise reclusive savants who shun face-to-face interviews, and were the primary driving forces behind the stress on the first word in “intelligent dance music,” a reminder that a lot of electronic music (and indie rock in general) during the ’90s wasn’t supposed to be fun.4 So even if Syro’s importance is manifested in topping year-end lists, perhaps we’ll witness its enduring influence on a new generation of Aphex Twin fans who associate the album with struggling through Destiny on PlayStation 4.
“minipops 67 [120.2]”
Key point: For entry-level types like us, the key to loving Syro may be to take the title of one of Aphex Twin’s best albums to heart: I care because you do.