Thirteen years is an absolute age in the world of electronic music, yet it seems like only yesterday since 2001’s Drukqs was released. Since then dubstep has seen a meteoric soar and burning crash, the faux-phoenix of EDM has risen as mainstream dance music attempts to mold in the unnatural fit of the stadium rock act, a multitude of genres have been shuffled from vogue to vilified by the music press and, hell, even Boards Of Canada have managed to release three whole albums in that time frame.
Flippant as that last point may sound, the return of Richard D. James is perhaps a little less gob smacking than last year’s out of the blue reappearance by Boards Of Canada. Where the Scottish pairing went totally dark after the release of Geogaddi, reduced to the status of mocking Aprils Fools jokes, James continued to maintain a presence outside of the confines of the studio album. Be it orchestral excursions, with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, or as part of the ever churning DJ circuit, with both named and surprise anonymous gigs, the bearded one with the sinister smile has never lapsed. However, this return to the studio album format begs one question of Syro: has absence made the heart grow fonder, or is the return of Aphex Twin one of a man outside of his time?
There is no argument about the impact of James’ releases on contemporary electronic music, with those inspired by his work reaching up into the A-list stratosphere of celebrity pop stars. You’ll hear his sounds, his structures, his techniques flitting throughout dance music over the last decade with very little searching required. Objekt’s recent Ganzfeld is a perfect example of AFXism in practice with its orchestral flourish and held reverb snares. While Dutch electronic artist Kettel has effectively made a career out of furthering the intricate melodic side of James’ work.
This sets up the Aphex legacy as one of forward facing blueprint electronica and a great many will approach Syro looking for a revelatory next step. If this is the case, you are most likely going to come away underwhelmed. That particular baton has been picked up and fought over by a multitude of current artists, with today’s techno contingent most concerned with exploring the challenging and the alienating.
Hold fire, though, as there is a reason for Syro sounding as it does. If you look at the life of Richard D. James, this is a man who is completely unconcerned with any sense of musical agenda. He lives in a small village outside of Glasgow with a population of a mere 300, most of which you would assume are non-plussed with the presence of any Aphexes or Twins. He doesn’t subscribe to social media whatsoever “I think there’s a risk of people becoming zombies with Facebook.“ His most pleasurable live appearances are the ones under the shroud of anonymity, with more glee gained by playing to a handful of skeptical and unaware punters than to a crowd of fevered worshippers. The only person James is making music for is himself. As such, to know Syro, you must embrace disappointment, understand expectations, before screwing both into a tiny ball and throwing it out the window.
Entering the realm of the subjective here, Aphex Twin has always felt like a playlist artist. A majority of the catalogue is one of albums with stellar highlights but almost too schizophrenic to endure as end to end listens, almost as if James was befallen by a uncontrollable need to dominate every instrument and push it beyond its limits. With this in mind, it is possible to say that Syro is the most coherent and consistently enjoyable listen since ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92‘. It is an album from a man that is totally comfortable in himself.
For all those who mimic James’ work, nobody does it as well as the master himself. It is for this reason that when the “it’s not Aphex” mini-LP under The Tuss moniker surfaced, everyone saw through the ruse. The crux of it all is the attention to detail, the near obsessive construction of each piece where every note is a beautiful snowflake. In the passing years away from the scene, the only vaguest sense of external influence seeping through into Syro could be pinned on ‘Produk 29‘, whose lazy 1950’s sci-fi hip-hop would sit rather well under the umbrella of Richard’s good friend Luke Vibert. Outside of that, it is a case of as you were with regard to palette.
Familiar themes unfurl as you listen, lessening the years between 2001 and today. Most notably is the love of prepared piano that floats through a multitude of tracks, including the perfect scene setter of ‘Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)‘. It also provides the finishing triumph in the Avril 14th moment of ‘Aisatsana‘, which in itself shows a degree of tonal maturity when compared to the forceful hammer strikes of the Drukqs performances. Then there are the pieces that sound like they were born rather than created, living through a lifecycle of emotions and shifting banks of hardware before reaching their bitter end.
They can be exemplary – old school brassid in ‘PAPAT4 (Pineal Mix)‘, ‘S950tx16wasr10 (Earth Portal Mix)‘ turning in an awesome LTJ Bukem deconstruction, or the shifts in gear through elation and determination found in ‘Syro u473t8+e (Piezoluminescence Mix)‘ – but they can also be meandering – the ever so slightly overlong ornamental funk of ‘XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton3 Mix)‘ being the prime suspect here. And, despite what is a return to a more placid mood, there are those moments that make the hair on your neck stand up as if recalling a half remembered childhood nightmare of playground melodies and under-the-bed terrors – the brutal techno of ‘180db_‘ being a highlight in this respect.
Already social media networks are awash with chatter declaring a range of opinions, ranging from good to bad to shut-up-about-Syro-everybody. Favourite internet past time list wars has already commenced, with each being hastily collated to declare the good tracks – which, if you tally up the responses, equates to all of them. As such, like with ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest‘, Syro’s real sense of place will be only be found in the months and years to come. Until then, it is the simplest truth that captures the essence of the return of Richard D. James: new Aphex Twin album sounds like Aphex Twin. Take that as you will.
Syro is out now, order a copy from Bleep.
1. minipops 67 (source field mix)
2. XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)
3. produk 29
4. 4 bit 9d api+e+6
6. CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)
7. fz pseudotimestretch+e+3
8. CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)
9. syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)
10. PAPAT4 (pineal mix)
11. s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)