When someone has a reputation and a mystique as strong as Richard D James it can be hard to separate the music from his mantle as one of the main innovators in modern electronica. Taking 13 years off releasing as Aphex Twin is one way to do it to some degree though the Analord series and subsequent The Tuss releases meant he wasn’t completely silent as were snatches of new songs played live and at DJ sets poured over by obsessives.
James’ last full album Druqks arrived when I was in college and picking into the entry points of the catalogues of Warp, Plaid, Autechre, LFO, Clark, Kid 606, Bogdan Raczynski, Cylob, Hrvatski and Boards Of Canada. Druqks was a dense and long collection of music: thrilling in its otherworldly beat construction, harsh in its rhythms, playful in its own world and beautiful in its ambience. It had the extremes of Aphex: the heavy and light.
We know now that the contents of Syro is just some of the material recorded in the intervening years in one of James’ many studios. The oldest track stretch back six or seven years, using a massive 138 pieces of musical equipment (all listed in spiral on the artwork).
What’s most striking about Syro after initial listens is how a lot of it is very similar in tone to Druqks. There hasn’t been any huge departure. One of the most striking parts of that album were the minimal piano pieces, echoed here at the end of 69 minutes of music with a gorgeous piano and birdsong track ‘aisatsana ’, the track’s title, his wife’s name Anastasia spelled backwards.
What appears before it also echoes the heavier side of Druqks but repeated listens reveal new textures, new moods, new avenues explored by James. The trademark eeriness of melody and general cheeky humour is still evident throughout but the greatest part of a new Aphex Twin record is that is truly allows you to get lost in its puzzle, a completely different musical terrain even when there are expected imprints of ambient works, electro, acid, jungle and squiggly funk.
On the surface, ‘produk 29 ’ is the most straight-forward beat on the record but it morphs above its tempo with so many different sounds, voice samples and vignettes that by the time the synths rise towards the track’s end, it feels very far from its simple origin. ‘180db_ ’ is an unsettling spasm of acid, ‘CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix]’ is classic Aphex bleeps and blips but its deprogrammed synth line and squeals translate unspoken emotion while ‘PAPAT4 [pineal mix]’ recalls Selected Ambient Works era mood but with more complexity.
The 10 minute experience of ‘XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]’ feels different every time with environmental listening experiences changing the focus and feel (headphones, outdoors, late-night) as all the best electronic music can do. Syro still offers much to explore, many repeat listens in.
And that is the key to why Aphex Twin is pored over so minutely, because he goes into such detail in his music. James’ intricate compositional skills remains his biggest asset. While his sounds have been copied over the years, his brain is still peerless.