You can keep your Kate Bush. The first new Aphex Twin album for more than a decade is the real musical event of the year
Looking back, it all started to go a bit haywire with the release of the ‘Ventolin’ EP in 1995. It was then that, with what can only be described as a grinding screech, Planet Aphex Twin shifted on its axis. Out went the blissful, quirky melodies of the ‘Selected Ambient Works’ albums. Gone was the innate funkiness and experimentalism of the ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ EPs.
In their place came this… sound. The breakbeats, once so artfully deployed, skittered and fell over each other like a Saturday afternoon scaffolding accident, ugly basslines hammered away with the appeal of moist curry farts, and the acid was twisted into sadistic, unsexy shapes, all of which came wrapped in bright and piercing production.
As a direction, it wasn’t especially new. These were elements that Richard D James had been tinkering with since 1992, when the throttled 303s, gorgeous synth lines and ‘RoboCop’ samples of ‘Green Calx’ ensured it was one of those tracks you simply had to listen to again. And he was already a dab hand at the more relentless end of things – nobody would be licensing the industrial chug of ‘Quoth’ from ‘Polygon Window’ for their chill-out compilation any time soon.
But with ‘Ventolin’, he’d taken the aesthetic to the extreme. What’s more, he continued ploughing that furrow, polarising listeners until 2001, when the relentless clatter of the ‘Drukqs’ double set proved to be the Waterloo for many an Aphex fan and was the last album of new material to bear that name.
Until now, of course.
By and large, ‘Syro’ marks an end to the challenging period. Opening with ‘minipops 67 (source field mix)’ appears to be an exercise in listener orientation, because there’s nothing harsh about this track, nothing “difficult”. With its rubbery bassline (reminiscent of Sabres Of Paradise’s ‘Smokebelch II’), as well some actual singing and really pretty melodies, it is simply a great Aphex Twin tune. One from the old school.
Not only that, but it’s as good a statement of intent as you’ll get for the album as a whole, involving most of the thematic elements that crop up from then on – edited, schizoid breakbeats, squelchy acid, heavily treated vocal samples, trippy pianos, and snatches of choirs and conversation. This is James’ best, most listener-friendly album since ‘Selected Ambient Works II’.
Things are helped considerably by the analogue warmth. For example, the jittery beats and bleeps of ‘XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)’ wouldn’t necessarily have been out of place on ‘Druqks’, but there they would have been rendered in a harsh, clinical sound, whereas the vibe here harks back to that earlier ‘Selected Ambient Works’ period.
What’s more, there’s melody. Over the length of ‘Syro’, we’re treated to some truly transcendent moments in that department. And for the first time in an age, the Twin doesn’t seem intent on spoiling them with terrifying explosions of noise. A centrepiece of sorts is achieved by ‘CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)’ and ‘CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)’ and, just like the old days, the cut-up breakbeats are inviting, the acid swirls and synth washes the aural equivalent of a floatation tank. Sandwiching the interlude of ‘fz pseudotimestretch+e+3’, they form a mini masterpiece at the heart of a record that already has its fair share of them.
It’s tempting to wonder how much of this album’s success is down to the influence of James’ more recent aliases. Because the elephant in the room is that while this may be the first Aphex Twin record in 11 years, he has been plugging away in the meantime, making analogue IDM as The Tuss and releasing the ‘Analord’ series as AFX, to say nothing of playing a fair few live shows. So he’s not really been that quiet.
In the end, what’s more significant than a slightly bogus reappearance narrative is the consolidating manner in which he’s done it. Because if you could combine the many facets of Richard D James – the imperial period of his Aphex work from ‘Didgeridoo’ to ‘Selected Ambient Works II’, the “difficult” years of ‘Ventolin’ to ‘Drukqs’, the less awkward work of The Tuss and AFX in the period since – if you could distil the essence of all that into one record, you’d have ‘Syro’. Which is a very enticing prospect indeed, not to mention a tasty signpost to the future.
Yes, ’Syro’ is a bit too long and, as has been noted elsewhere, offers nothing new to the genre. If anything this is the sound of Richard D James turning back the clock, yet doing it with such a command of the material that it never feels reductive or revisionist. What it feels like is Aphex Twin doing what he does best. Feels a bit like genius at work.