I remember walking into my local record emporium way back in the year 1992. Of course everything was in black and white back then as colour hadn’t yet been invented. I had a singular purpose! To purchase a strange record that I had heard discussed in closed circles and hushed tones by shadowy figures with a glint in their eyes. By JOHN BITTLES
It had been described by various people as ›deep‹, ›trippy‹, ›like being in a flotation tank‹ and ›beautifully fucked-up‹. The album was Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and had been created by the mysterious figure known only to the select few as Aphex Twin. Little was known about Richard D. James back then since this was the age of the faceless techno producers cloaked in secrecy, content to let their music express whatever it was they had to say.
The early 90s were such a fertile time for deep electronic music, or IDM as it came to be known that it truly felt as if it would take over the world. There were numerous gems released such as Ginger by Speedy J, Time Tourist by B12, Bytes by Black Dog and the wonderfully spooky Visions of the Past by Robert Leiner. This is a time when people would examine drum programming and deconstruct tracks to decipher inner meanings and hidden contexts. They didn’t call it Intelligent Dance Music for nothing!
After a brief perusal in said record shop, I bought the album on cassette, fighting the lure of the vinyl for something that could easily fit in my pocket beside the two years out of date pack of condoms. »Hope you’ve some great drugs for that« uttered the guy behind the counter with an air of hash-induced reverence. »Indeed I do« I replied politely while deciding to buy the Tina Turner album another time. The air of expectation was immense! I literally couldn’t wait to get it home and give it a few plays.
And what a narcotic oasis of listening pleasure it was! Sounding like nothing else I had ever heard, its songs combined gorgeous melodies together with distorted basslines and the breakbeats of rave. The album was a sedate and disorientating listen that had the power to make time itself appear to stand still. Drum machine patterns echoed within hazy synths and fractured bass to create something that sounded, literally, like it was not of this world. Even listening to the album now, over 20 years later it is impossible not to be swept up in its raw emotive power. Nothing else matters when you play this record! The simple act of playing it is enough to make your entire life seem worthwhile.
Xtal opens proceedings with some lush synth-work before hushed and unhurried beats gently worm their way into the mix. A female voice echoes into your consciousness before a low breakbeat arrives catching you completely unaware.
The whole album contains an ample abundance of melodies and pop-hooks that ensure the record sounds homely and familiar even as the structure and distortion of certain tracks make them seem alien and strange. In fact tracks such as Ageispolis and Heliospan contain melodies that even your Mum could happily hum.
Tha sounds like you are moving in slow motion, or you’re stuck in a scene from a David Lynch production. Pulsewidth contains a steady rave-like beat, yet still, somehow, manages to sound like a blowback from God. Yet even here we have a beautiful piano line that combines exquisitely with an overall feeling of genuine human warmth. Many of these tracks are the aural equivalent of your stoner friend coming up to you and giving you a huge, warm hug.
Green Calx erupts with acid tones and hardcore rave breaks to bring you straight out of whatever reverie you may have found, while We Are the Music Makers gurgles and groans in all the right places to be a dancefloor bomb. And that’s the thing with this album, even though the record can sound as far away from rave culture as an electronic work can get, its spectre is still an essential ingredient on this record. Some of it is danceable, and sometimes it’s even downright funky.
I have played the tracks on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 so many times that they are almost like close friends to me now. I can play them when I’m feeling sad, happy or alone. And that’s the magic of instrumental electronic music in a nutshell! You literally get out of it what you put in. You can listen to these songs and paint your own mental pictures, insert meanings where you see fit, until they become so much more than what they started out. They are free floating symbols, which over time, stop moving around and come to represent all that is important to you in your own private world.
That Richard D. James never managed to replicate the sordid majesty of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. There is a naivety and innocence about many of these tracks which he was never able to locate again. Just as many of the early Chicago house or Detroit techno records have a feel of gleeful experimentation and ‘what does this button do?’ that make them warm and human through the machine-like rhythms, so SAW has a playful side where you can almost hear the producer’s joy of discovery as he puts things together that really shouldn’t be there.
A second volume of ambient works came along which was much more of a traditional ›ambient‹ affair than the previous album, eschewing beats almost entirely as it does. After this Aphex Twin started a slow but steady progress towards disappearing completely up his own bum crack and he is now better known for having a complete disregard for his fans and for finding it humorous to release works of unlistenable noise. This is such a shame since one thing we discover upon playing SAW is that here is a visionary producer who actually has something to say.
Listened to as a whole Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a seductive yet playful album that will stay with you like a faithful friend. It encapsulates escapism as all great music should and really does have the power to transport the listener to places they’ve never been. In the words of We Are the Music Makers »We are the music makers. We are the dreamer of dreams«. If all dreams were this good we’d spend a lot more time asleep.
| JOHN BITTLES