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A beginner’s guide to the many sounds of Aphex Twin

Illustration for article titled A beginner’s guide to the many sounds of Aphex Twin
PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.

Aphex Twin 101

Exploring the massive discography of Richard D. James, known better as Aphex Twin, is like looking through a detailed history of the ebbs and flows of post-disco electronic music, from the rave music of the late ’80s to mid-’90s dubstep and through to ambient and the strange amalgamation of everything electronic throughout the ’00s. The English DJ/producer has made a habit of being at the forefront of sonic changes in electronic music across three decades, at once dictating the cultural narrative while also removing himself from it, branching out and exploring new and innovative sounds and textures.


Aphex Twin spent his early years playing in the sandbox of acid, a genre offshoot of house music that often boasted harsher, edgier sounds. His first EP, titled Analogue Bubblebath Vol. I and released under the name AFX, embraces such chaos while also promoting a melodic sensibility that would come into focus as he dabbled in ambient territory in the early ’90s. “Analogue Bubblebath” boasts a warm synth line that underscores the track’s more atmospheric tones, while “Isoprophlex” is restless, a pounding bass line fighting it out with synths that stab through the arrangement with purposeful malice. Analogue Bubblebath Vol. II followed, also as AFX, which featured what would later become one of James’ biggest hits. Titled “Digeridoo (Aboriginal Mix)” on the EP but later simplified to “Digeridoo,” the track is an acid-house classic, a frantic, gorgeous dance floor jam that’s equal parts exhausting and immersive, an intoxicating didgeridoo sample anchoring the hard-driving percussive elements. It’s perhaps the purest and most exhilarating example of what Aphex Twin was doing aesthetically at the time: taking the signifiers of acid and house and slapping them together in the hope that something beautiful would arrange itself in the mess.

The best of these early recordings are found on 1994’s Classics, a compilation record that took the entirety of Aphex Twin’s Digeridoo and Xylem Tube EPs and rereleased them alongside a handful of other early releases. These Aphex Twin recordings not only show off James’ uncanny ability for blending abrasive electronic elements with softer tones, but hints at his expansion into the genre of drum ’n’ bass, the frenetic, percussion-heavy genre that would come to define much of the popular English electronic music in the early- to mid-’90s. “Phloam” hits hard, all static and disintegrating synths; “Tamphex” is a clear precursor to drum ’n’ bass, more percussively complex and building around an eerie vocal sample, while “Polynomial-C” is the collection’s most accessible track, an ascending-then-descending riff weaving in and out of the crisp snares and lush synths.

While Aphex Twin was finding experimental fuel in the genres of acid, house, and techno, the early ’90s also saw the release of two of his most critically acclaimed albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, albums that stood in stark contrast to the ruthless sonic turns collected on Classics. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was recorded straight to cassette, and it shows, in the best way possible. The sounds are atmospheric and welcoming, the tape hissing, and occasional pops evoking cassette and vinyl nostalgia when listened to in 2014. James runs the gamut in terms of ambient music here: “Tha” is a nine-minute epic, a pulsing cut that’s perhaps the liveliest track on the record. “Pulsewidth” is an intoxicating house cut that shifts gears numerous times in its economical four minutes. “Green Calx” is more erratic and punchy while “We Are The Music Makers” is a gorgeous tapestry of bright synths and a single vocal hook stating, “We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams.” Where that album still held on to the occasional house influence, especially in terms of the percussive elements, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is much more in line with the popular notion of ambient music, the kind practiced by Brian Eno in the late ’70s and early-’80s on albums like Ambient 1: Music For Airports and even the more abstract Music For Films. Aphex Twin takes his time building arrangements, resulting in one of his most sonically reserved records to date. Consisting of two discs that run around 80 minutes each, it’s a double-album that’s more challenging than its predecessor. Practically beat-less, it’s an album of tones and moods; from the classic “Rhubarb” to the vague driving pulse of “Blue Calx,” James muses on what ambient music can be, whether background noise or immersive experience. Perhaps most importantly, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is a snapshot of changing cultural attitudes toward electronic music; the rise of specific genre classifications like IDM (intelligent dance music) and ambient signaled a shift in the listening habits of audiences—electronic music was moving from the dance floor to the bedroom, from a social music to a solitary one.

Intermediate Studies

After the release of his ambient records, Aphex Twin embarked on a successful run of releases throughout the latter half of the ’90s. 1995 saw the release of I Care Because You Do, a perfect bridge between James’ implementation of experimental techno and glossy ambient. This was a time when audiences were hailing grunge as the return of punk rock, but some of the most interesting and provocative music of the time was coming out of electronic genres; I Care Because You Do is wonderfully adventurous and idiosyncratic. Tracks like the icy “Icct Hedral,” the jarring and explosive “Ventolin” and the majestic “Next Heap With” showed that Aphex Twin was ready to expand upon the early sounds of techno, house, and drum ’n’ bass, moving into new territory and, with the rise of digital, looking for sounds outside of analog synths.

That same year Aphex Twin released the Donkey Rhubarb EP, a more experimental but still melodically focused release from James, featuring the obtuse “Vaz Deferenz” and an orchestral arrangement of “Icct Hedral” done by Philip Glass, which served to cement James’ connection to the world of avant-garde music. Then, in 1996, James reached an artistic apex with the Richard D. James Album. Musing on the rise of jungle, itself tied to drum ’n’ bass, the Richard D. James Album is intricate and detailed. There are layers of noise throughout the album’s standout track “4,” but that can’t stop the beautiful melody from peeking through like light coming through the blinds in a dark room. “Cornish Acid” is more agitated and aggressive, an early-album nod to James’ acid roots. He then goes on to explore vocal sampling and more beat-centred cuts, including the mindblowing “To Cure a Weakling Child,” a track that’s the aesthetic and spiritual sequel to opening cut “4.” Richard D. James Album boasts some of Aphex Twin’s most memorable melodies and experiments, and it perfectly fused his ambient sensibilities with his knack for aggressive techno. The beats here are fast and furious, but they’re always grounded by the patience that made Selected Ambient Works Vol. II such an ambitious effort.

Aphex Twin closed out the ’90s with a string of releases that continued to push genre boundaries. 1997’s Come To Daddy EP is often seen as a bit of satire, a send-up of the driving electronic music of bands like The Prodigy. While that’s true of songs like “Come To Daddy” and “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” which are furious, jackhammer productions, there are also moments of sly subversion, like on the airy, propulsive “Flim” or the mournful “IZ-US.” 1999’s Windowlicker delivers similar aesthetic choices. The title track is one of James’ glitchiest and most unpredictable efforts, consisting of his voice modulated in a variety of pitches and underscored by his typical breakbeat snares and tumbling drum lines. “Windowlicker” represents an appropriate end to the decade for Aphex Twin, comprising the past, present, and future of his work; in touch with his acid roots, his drum ’n’ bass ambitions and his techno sensibilities.


Advanced Studies

By the early ’00s, electronic music was more familiar to mainstream audiences. Bands like The Prodigy and Moby had found significant commercial success, completing the move from subculture to culture. As electronica found a surprising home in the Top 40, Aphex Twin continued to release music that fell outside of such aspirations, though the pace at which he released albums, singles and EPs slowed a bit. In 2001 Aphex Twin released one of his most divisive albums, Drukqs, a double-record collection of fearless, frenzied arrangements. Aided by a computer-controlled piano, James crafted jarring pieces of garage and drum ’n’ bass. The result is a halfhearted trip through James’ various influences, and unlike classic records like I Care Because You Do, there’s hardly a cohesive vision here. Instead, the record feels like an indulgent set of B-sides (with track names written in Cornish). There are some interesting moments: The wandering oriental-tinged melody on “Jynweythek Ylow” benefits from its brief runtime, as does the one-two punch of the sparse, industrial-sounding “Bit4” and “Prep Gwarlek 3b,” but the majority of the record is nothing more than a handful of intriguing experiments.


One of Aphex Twin’s more interesting releases came in 2003. 26 Mixes For Cash is as bold and honest as its title, crafting remixes out of stems from, among others, David Bowie, Seefeel, and Nine Inch Nails. Considering how prevalent remix culture would become in the age of YouTube and Girl Talk, 26 Mixes For Cash is almost prescient, if not one of the more consistently audacious collections of remixes—this is without a doubt an Aphex Twin album, no matter the source material. James also spent much of the ’00s releasing singles and EPs, collected as a series with the name Analord. As the title seems to suggest, the recordings are filled with analog synthesizers like the Roland 808 and 303. As with Drukqs though, there’s no connective tissue, no singular vision or creative purpose. As with any series of singles, there’s enough to love for a diehard, crate-digging Aphex Twin fan, but little else. Where Aphex Twin’s earliest records are firmly planted in the context of the electronic music of the time, Analord feels like a vague smattering of ideas that never really fit anywhere else.

Now, in 2014, 13 years since his last proper full-length, Aphex Twin is set to return with Syro. So much has changed in terms of electronic music since James first started out, but he’s always been at the forefront of those cultural shifts. He’s always seemed two steps ahead, embracing new ideas and new sounds. At times, that recklessness has resulted in futuristic-sounding classics, singlehandedly shaping the narrative of electronic music. Sometimes it’s resulted in listless duds that fade from memory shortly after they stop playing. If the first track released from the album, the maximalist “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix],” is any indication, though, Aphex Twin is about to make another huge statement.


The essentials

1. Richard D. James Album

2. Selected Ambient Works 85-92

3. I Care Because You Do

4. Classics

5. Come To Daddy