#1 – First of all, I have some confessions to make: I first heard Aphex Twin as a teenager who only knew of him as an important influence on Radiohead. I appreciated the gorgeous and perversely catchy melodies of Richard D. James Album and “Windowlicker,” but I knew nothing about electronic music then, and the structures of the songs were alien and inscrutable to me. I got older, my tastes expanded, electronic music became a regular part of my sonic diet, but I never came back to Aphex Twin. I’m not sure why. It might have been the embarrassing Radiohead connotations, or just the fact that no one was really talking about him
The story surrounding his latest album Syro is that he has been silent since 2001’s Drukqs, a 100 minute jumble of punishing drill beats and miniature acoustic experiments. This of course is not true: the Analord EPs and his work as The Tuss comprise hours of music, but mainstream criticism (for better or worse) thrives on the album cycle, and Richard D. James didn’t seem especially interested in making those anymore. So I can’t remember the whim that eventually led me to return to Aphex Twin, but sitting down to listen to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 for the first time felt like unrolling the Dead Sea Scrolls. SAW essentially lays out the next 20 years of techno and predicts half its trendy micro genres, and it was the work of some bored kid in his bedroom in Cornwall. In the following months, I listened to nearly everything he’s recorded. Thus Syro is my first experience with a new Aphex Twin album, and perhaps appropriately for me, it may be his most retrospective.
Syro’s already legendary 10 minute epic “XMASEVET10” most immediately recalls the squelching synth workout of Analord 02’s “Phonatacid,” just as the opener/single “minipops 67” recalls giddy highlights like "PWSteal.Ldpinch.D" and "Lisbon Acid," but there is a moment at the exact mid-point of "XMASEVE" where something else hits me. The song’s randomized funk and intricate clapping beat are joined by twinkling keys and a soft ambient melody. For the first (and not last) time, Syro reaches beyond James’s more recent work, all the way back to the naively beautiful, analogue panoramas of SAW 85-92. The Analord series was a knowingly retro move, a total shift back to analogue at a time when digital seemed to rule, but it was also marked by the cold precision and intricacy that’s always been part of James’s music. Syro stands apart from most of his 21st Century output by returning to the playfulness and emotional depth of his 90s work.
There are inarguably new things going on as well. “Produk 29” takes the twisted funk sounds that James has been playing with for years to their logical conclusion, combining typically ominous synth melodies and garbled vocal samples with an honest to god, butt-shaking groove. “CIRCLONT14” turns a standard jam into some kind of magically silly combination of what sounds like a Russian translation program and a digital slide whistle. But overall, Syro reveals that Richard James, despite his years of groundbreaking and envelope pushing, is just as obsessed with churning up and recycling the past as everyone else is these days. I can see why this has been a little disappointing to some. People want Aphex Twin to turn stuff on its head, change paradigms, shake shit up. But Syro is, by his own admission, a collection of more accessible odds and ends from the last several years of recording. I saw someone call it Selected Ambient Works 07-14.
But Syro is still a perfectly satisfying comeback for Aphex Twin. If it is not a revolution it is at least approaching the past with all the genius and idiosyncrasies we’ve come to expect out of him. Derek Walmsley’s review from The Wire really sums it up nicely: “This bionic upgrading, by way of distanced revisionism, is the kind of thing Daft Punk aim for, but instead of their slick executive summary of the 1980s, Syro is deep inside the circuits.” What was ultimately so disappointing about last year’s Random Access Memories is how stuffy and narrow its view of the past was, all expensive coked-out studio sessions and Studio 54 glam fantasies. Richard D. James doesn’t want to insert himself into some glittering, pristine memory, he wants to chop that memory up in some dingy shed behind his house and stitch its rotted parts back together. And isn’t that why we love him.