Bittles‘ Magazine | Aphex Twin: Syro
Like all great stories it began with a bright green blimp! It was hovering over an unaware London like a prop from the filming of some dastardly Joker scene as he is about to poison the city. By JOHN BITTLES
If you looked closely enough you were just able to make out lettering that resembled the year 2014, together with a large A which looked suspiciously like the Aphex Twin insignia as used on ›Selected Ambient Works 85-92.‹ But this musical maverick hadn’t been heard from in years. Could this really be something to do with him? Over the following months many more portents appeared. Hidden in the deep internet was an album track-list, the skies had turned an ominous red, I experienced a cold shiver whenever I was alone in the coal shed, adverts started to appear. All of this could only mean one thing. There was a new Aphex Twin album on the cards.
Released, to an adoring public on the 22nd of September ›Syro‹ is Richard D. James’ first album under the Aphex Twin moniker for thirteen years. That it has been greeted like a long-lost sexy 2nd cousin who might, just, let you sleep with her by a certain section of musical geekdom is a given. Richard has long entered the ranks of someone who can release the sound of a elongated fart and people will still talk about what a genius he is. Me, I wasn’t so convinced, as I still have the scars from when I had been bruised, battered and molested by some of his output in the past.
His last album as Aphex Twin, ›Drukqs‹ was an unmitigated mess; the sound of someone treating their audience and fan-base with complete and utter contempt. There were also the DJ sets where he would play sandpaper, just to show us all what idiots we were for listening to him. The ›Analord‹ EPs that he released in 2005 under his AFX alias were hit and miss. Just as you discovered a nice melody, or got into a groove, a torrent of hardcore beats would pummel your senses for daring to hope. Since the release of ›Selected Ambient Works Volume 2‹ way back in 1994 his output had been sporadic and middling at best.
So, my hopes weren’t high when I pressed play on ›Syro‹. I kept expecting to suddenly experience a nose bleed, or for his bearded and mutilated image to appear before me flicking V sings my way with unadulterated disdain. But what I got was 64 minutes of electronic beauty with a cheeky and unmistakably Aphex Twin-like flourish. The album swirls with heart-stopping melodies, while the glitches and break-beats we have come to associate with his sound are playful and welcoming beasts. In short, ›Syro‹ is Richard D. James best album in a mighty long time.
The album opens with the tangled ambience of the ridiculously named ›minipops 67 (source field mix)‹ The elasticity of the bass instantly recalls the aural delights of ›Windowlicker‹ in all its deranged glory, while a gorgeous melody seemingly comes out of nowhere to swell deep within your soul. Overwhelmingly funky, it makes for a light-hearted beginning, that is a lot more hospitable than you would have expected from someone with such a fearsome rep.
This frisky sense of experimentation continues with the epic electro-pop that makes up ›XMAS_EVET1O (thanaton3 mix).‹ Constantly shifting and morphing as it progresses, it contains more ideas in its ten minute running time than most artists manage in their entire careers. The track begins with some shuffling hi-hats and mournful piano to get you in the mood. From here things get interesting with the introduction of some frenzied acid squiggles, elastic sounding break-beats and some hazy synthesizers that work together to create an exquisite mess of noise. Seriously, this is easily one of the stand-out tunes of the album, if not Richard’s career.
From here we are treated to the ›Mo’ Wax‹ style trip-hop of ›4bit 9d api+e+6‹ (yes, all the song titles are deranged), the adrenalin fuelled rave synths of ›180db‹ and the big beat with soul that is ›CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)‹ . With its foundation of busy drums, together with a beautifully alien like synth melody, ›CIRCLONT6A‹ has a strong sense of musicality that gradually emerges from behind the aural barrage. At first you don’t even know it’s there, but repeated listens prove it is, as the song worms its way into your consciousness until it becomes almost as essential as air.
Each song seems like it has a hundred ideas vying for your attention, which sometimes makes for a frantic and disorientating listen. Yet, it is the bittersweet melody lines which sneak in and out of each song that make up the foundation of the album. They add a human warmth to the alien bleeps, beeps and burps while also encouraging the listener to search deeper and deeper into the hyperactive grooves like an explorer just on the cusp of the discovery of the year.
The second half of the record is a bit pacier, more frantic sounding and pushes the beats firmly to the fore. But the thing is, even at its most headache-inducingly brutal there are ample moments of beauty and wonder to be found. There is so much going on in many of these tracks it makes it almost impossible to categorize or describe. And when was the last time you were able to say that about a song? Just have a listen to aural cum-shot of ›CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)‹ , or the evil genius sound-tracking title track and try to describe them in under two hundred words. You either end up sounding like a pretentious twat, an über fan, or someone who has gotten completely lost within their own words.
Yet, even with all this distraction and the overabundance of ideas, the album is a surprisingly coherent listen. There is a gradual increase in pace throughout the album’s progression, something which reaches a peak with the frighteningly good ›PAPAT4 (pineal mix).‹ Druggy sounding synths clash viciously with drum & bass style beats to create something that manages to be tranquil, mind-blowingly crazy and something you can dance to all at the same time.
Then, just when you have had your nerves frayed, and you are beginning to think that all of these songs seem a little similar in pace and tone, along comes the exquisite piano piece ›aisatsana‹ to bring the album to a melancholy and contemplative end. First performed as an art piece with a piano that swung around the hall, this is a thoughtful bit of classical art which perfectly captures why so many people were so excited to see this musical madman/genius back creating records.
While not necessarily for beginners, this is a more user-friendly and tuneful record than we could have expected from the notorious prankster that is Richard D. James. Describing the album to ›Pitchfork‹ in a recent interview as ›the most accessible one‹ of a rumoured 10 or so albums he has primed for release ›Syro‹ sounds and feels like vintage Aphex Twin. Ok, so it doesn’t change the formula, or push boundaries in any way. But it is still his most enjoyable and coherent LP since ›Selected Ambient Works Pt. 2‹ . You also get the sense that if this was released by anyone else but him, then it would be widely derided for being derivative of a sound that peaked in 1994. And rightly so! But, since ›Syro‹ is the work of the originator of this particular sound the fact that it hasn’t developed much since the 90s is very easy to forgive.
If you are looking for three minute pop songs, or lyrics that actually mean something then this might not be the album for you. But, for those of us who are willing to allow the break-beats to wash over us and to search within the forests of noise for that one killer melody then this is a mighty fine album indeed. Let’s just hope there isn’t such a long wait for the next one!