I have been listening to Aphex Twin for a long time. I first encountered him in the 1990s on one of Astralwerks’ Excursions In Ambience series of CDs.
There is a story that i still tell about his Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2 record. One Friday i decided i was going to make a curry and have a couple of friends over to eat dinner, drink a few beers, and hang out. For some reason or another more and more people started showing up, until it was a large group of people at my apartment, some of whom i did not know all that well.
As happens at social events, people lingered late, but since it was the end of a work week, i eventually got tired and wanted people to leave so that i could go to bed. I put on Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2, and its mellow tones and hushed sounds caused people to start yawning. Yawning led them to decide to head home, which meant that i could go to bed.
Not to imply that SAW2 (as it is commonly abbreviated) is boring. Rather, ambient music on that level is not conducive to a party atmosphere. It is reflective music, and after a few hours of food and beer it can lead people to a natural sleepiness. That is what i used the record for, but i am sure there are friends of mine who think that Aphex Twin makes music that is sleep inducing.
This is not the case, even if he did make one of the greatest ambient electronic records ever made. Aphex Twin has actually made music in a wide range of styles and tempos.
But he has been quiet for a while. I guess i hadn't really noticed that Aphex Twin has not released an album in 13 years (2001’s Drukqs, which i found disappointing overall), or anything in 8 years (2006's compilation Chosen Lords, which was excellent). Well, in my defense, EvilSponge receives so many promos that lots of things tend to get lost in the shuffle.
I was excited when i heard there would be a new record, but cautious as well. Would it be like Drukqs, Chosen Lords, SAW2, or somewhere in between?
The good news is that it is truly unlike none of them. What i like about the various Aphex Twin releases is that he does something different all of the time. Aphex Twin is but one stage name of the prolific electronic artist Richard D. James, and if you follow him through Aphex Twin, Caustic Window, AFX, or Polygon Window you will see that James can and does make a wide range of electronic music.
But at his best he plays with electronica in a way that no one else does, taking elements from here and there and twisting them into funky shapes. Take 180db_ where James takes the frenetic beats of old school drum-n-bass and adds a fast synth riff. I had not realized how much i missed those kinds of beats until James resurrected them here.
But that is just the start of my favorite stretch on this record.
After the frenetic dnb, James goes weird with CIRCLONT6A [Syrobonkus Mix], six minutes of bleeping synths, distorted vocal samples, and, oddly enough, a catchy little melody. I find myself bouncing my head along with this, as sounds pop in the background like R2-D2 having a seizure. The brief interlude Fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 is a distorted vocal loop with a great little melody cruising along for less than a minute.
That fades out and after some meandering tones, CIRCLONT14 [Shrymoming Mix] brings the frantic drum-n-bass beats of 180db_to the R2-D2 seizure of CIRCLONT6A [Syrobonkus Mix]. In the middle of this one is a great moment where the sounds all calm down and a stunning little beat taps by, just a tap tap tapping of almost infinite catchiness. I expect to hear hip-hop artists looping that little riff sometime soon. And it is just a moment, one small component in an over seven minute tune, but it is one moment of utter perfection. It is the ultimate culmination of the song, and only James could have come up with it. That's why i like him...
Okay, moving on there are a few other really great tunes here. None of the songs on the record are weak, but a few stand out.
S950tx16wasr10 [Earth Portal Mix] is a fusion of droning ambient synth and Autechre-style cut-and-pasted drum-n-bass. That is, fast beats skitter about rapidly over ebbing and flowing synth tones. At times this one seems very danceable, but then the beats get so dense that no one who is not triple-jointed could move to it.
XMAS_EVET10 [Thanaton3 Mix] is another stunner. Synths chime, groove, and drone under a catchy scattered beat and echoed vocal samples. This is catchy and happy.
The album closer reminds me of Drukqs, that is, Aisatsana is James playing piano, slowly, letting the notes echo. He is apparently playing in a room with the window open and birds chirping happily in the background. It's actually a nice, light moment to end the album on.
There is a lot to like here, and not just for the electronic music fan. I played this record for my girlfriend, a known Deadhead. She was unfamiliar with Aphex Twin before i played this, and she remarked how it was catchy and "neat". But if you enjoy electronic music, this is pretty much a must have.