Aphex Twin classic or Dud?

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So I’ve been digging thru the entire Aphex discography over the last several weeks … I wasn’t exactly a noob to him—I’ve had I Care Because You Do and Mike and Rich since they were released and RDJA and the SAWs on my iTunes forever—but I’ve never done a proper deep dive until now. It’s actually really interesting to hear his complete output with 2020 ears and sensibilities and absent the nostalgia I think that colors a lot of recent-ish writing about him, particularly since his 2014 comeback.

A few thoughts on his “proper releases” — some of which is gonna make me seem like a hater, but trust me when I say I’ve been really into and excited about this stuff on the whole and appreciate most of what he's released.

SAW 85-92 — This is probably the record that has the biggest gap between reputation and reality. Don’t get me wrong — I like it. Heliosphan is a killer tune (tho I like the live SC dump one better) and some of his signatures (melancholy keyboard melodies aching in the distance) get a trial run here. But it remains the least boundary-pushing record he’s done. While the tunes are nice, the conceit and execution are sort of strikingly basic, from its use of samples (like the Gene Wilder nick) to the beats. The whole thing sounds like it uses a grand total of three or four pieces of gear — one drum machine, one or two keyboards that use a couple of presets fed thru a cavernous Quadraverb. Is that part of its allure? For sure — and the cassette mastering here adds to the charm. But for a record that won Pitchfork’s ranking of 50 best IDM albums (some good writing in there BTW), a lot of this feels slight ... and slightly faceless in some ways. I’m not going to say they were doing it better necessarily but there’s not a lot here that many of his contemporaries weren’t doing at the same time.

SAW Vol. II — Let’s get this out of the way: most of the best loved stuff here sounds like Eno pastiche. Rhubarb nails the hyper-melodic Apollo/“An Ending” vibe. Stone in Focus is pretty much the last track on On Land. And Lichen is straight up Discreet Music. There’s a lot of kind of aimless atonal noodles here—“Curtains,” “Radiator”—that don’t feel much more significant than his SC dump. Of course, there’s also some really excellent sound design — “Trees” has a cool rumbling — and several tracks seem to have been slowed down, adding to kind of a spooky feel. “Blue Calx” is also gorgeous — where the authentic Aphex compositional style kind of emerges. A part of me feels like this is the record where IDM’s “anything goes” ideology really took hold — where form, melody and beats even aren’t really necessary anymore. Which I can appreciate if not always love. And which may have something to do with why this record is seen more as a masterpiece today than when it was released.

I Care Because You Do — Ok, now we’re talking. "Acrid Avid Jam Shred" is one of my favorites — it’s a simple pleasure in a lot of ways but what makes it special is how you start to hear Aphex’s mutating structures. What starts as a bouncy drum piece with a modest chord refrain completely changes when he introduces a longing pad figure at about three minutes in. When he takes the beat back up and adds a little whistle counter-melody, the whole track becomes glorious: beautiful, head-bobby, funny and emotional all at once. The pacing is extraordinary. If the rest of the record doesn’t *really* live up to the promise of its opener, that’s ok because it’s still pretty terrific. The introduction of “proper” orchestral textures (reinforced by the later Philip Glass arrangement of Icct Hedral) is an obvious but welcome reference point — and on tracks like “Wax the Nip” gel nicely with the frantic drums. “Mookid” and “Alberto Balsalm” get a lot of the love because they’re respites from a lot of what comes before—and they’re nice—but that’s probably all. Even still, this feels like the record where the whole Aphex aesthetic really kicks in — from the evil grin artwork, to the you-will-try-but-never-dance-to-these beats, to the melodies that don’t seem like much but are oddly affecting.

More when I come back up for air from work ...

Naive Teen Idol, Thursday, 15 October 2020 15:46 (one month ago) link

Co sign every bit of that

A True White Kid that can Jump (Granny Dainger), Thursday, 15 October 2020 16:17 (one month ago) link

Awesome! Squarepusher when you're done plz?

Maresn3st, Thursday, 15 October 2020 16:22 (one month ago) link

The whole thing sounds like it uses a grand total of three or four pieces of gear

I know you acknowledge this in the following sentence, but yes, this is part of the allure and why it deserves a place on Pitchfork's or anyone's top 50 IDM albums (it'd be in my top 5). It's easy to forget now how alien this felt and sounded at the time.

I mostly agree with your SAW2 take though!

Paul Ponzi, Thursday, 15 October 2020 17:43 (one month ago) link

Nice write ups!

In new aphex news, he seems to have again been collaborating on some gear with novation

AFX is back, but what are @WeAreNovation up to? https://t.co/MCmgGa00ik

— DJ Mag (@DJmag) October 8, 2020

kites aren't fun (NickB), Thursday, 15 October 2020 18:13 (one month ago) link

Haha, every time this thread gets bumped, I'm kinda like... ::bites nails:: OH GOD RICHARD WHAT HAVE YOU SAID NOW. WAHT.

So it's really cool to open it up and read something interesting? It's funny because (thank god the most extreme of my RDJ phanboy days are over!) I agree with many of your assessments, but for me, that's kind of the point, and that's why I love those records, especially 85-92? It's so absolutely basic and nothing-y from a compositional point of view or a gear point of view or a programming/structure point of view, yet it hits such a beautiful place for me. Even with almost nothing in the way of technical gimmickry, the guy still knew how to write a beautiful-haunting-sad-evocative tune.

Branwell with an N, Thursday, 15 October 2020 18:21 (one month ago) link

oh dang a Novation collab now? I'm 100% on board with this. The Peak is currently my favorite synth in the studio and easily the best bang and sonic variety for the buck, what a gorgeous piece of gear.

octobeard, Thursday, 15 October 2020 19:18 (one month ago) link

He already collaborated with them on the last iteration of the Basestation 2 mono - there was an Aphex mode where each step of a sequence would be a totally different sound to the step before. Not sure how useful that would be tbh, but I guess it would add a bit of spice to things

kites aren't fun (NickB), Thursday, 15 October 2020 22:15 (one month ago) link

This looks more like a whole new device though

kites aren't fun (NickB), Thursday, 15 October 2020 22:17 (one month ago) link

AFX STATION
WITH @WEARENOVATIONhttps://t.co/R07TcQl6h1 pic.twitter.com/xu09wVLyv2

— Aphex Twin (@AphexTwin) October 20, 2020

groovypanda, Tuesday, 20 October 2020 15:03 (one month ago) link

Let’s get this out of the way: most of the best loved stuff here sounds like Eno pastiche.

I don't think I quite agree here. SAWII is where the alien-ness of Aphex really clicks for me, from the melodies to the sound of the equipment used to how it is recorded. I'm as big of an Eno nerd as you can be, but I've never really noticed much similarity between Eno and SAWII besides the most obvious aspects that it shares with virtually all ambient music. In fact, one thing I think it does even better than Eno is really getting at the darker undercurrents that Eno explored with something like "On Land" but never really delved into much further.

Josh in Chicago, Tuesday, 20 October 2020 15:58 (one month ago) link

I feel rhubarb so much more than saccharine apollo mush.. don’t like mushy eno

brimstead, Tuesday, 20 October 2020 17:32 (one month ago) link

Didn't RDJ once say he had never heard Eno before making that album? Or am I confusing this with something else...

bagel in the streets, donut in the sheets (morrisp), Tuesday, 20 October 2020 17:34 (one month ago) link

that sounds like something he would say, and also one of his many lies

president of my cat (Karl Malone), Tuesday, 20 October 2020 18:01 (one month ago) link

Ok, a belated follow-up, it's been a busy week:

The Richard D James Album — I admit: I have always struggled to love this album. At the time it was released, it was hailed as sort of RDJ’s arrival, what with a shiny new drill n’ bass sound, attractive MIDI orchestral textures and a big push from Warp. But for a supposedly major work, several tracks here feel like piss takes and/or throwaways — Goon Gumpas is two minutes of pizzicato strings and heroic organ parts that sound like outtakes from Joe Meek’s Telstar, while Logan Rock Witch employs a pipe organ playing over jaw harp and slide whistle. The breakbeat extravaganzae on several of the other tracks tend to feel more showy/“Look ma”-y than invigorating. The most substantial things here are Girl/Boy Song, Yellow Calx and Peek 82454201 — all of which are really good and the latter of which is sneakily outstanding. Where stuff like Carn Marth gives me a bit of a headache, this somehow makes drill n’ bass soft and lush, with a crispness and real depth of production. The arrival of the melody more than a minute in? That's invigorating, an all-time moment. But overall, this feels a bit like Richard's Annie Hall: an important template for what’s to come, but generally less developed, successful and in some ways enjoyable.

Come to Daddy — My favorite release of his and in a lot of ways more RDJA than RDJA was – less "major statement" than definitive expression of who he is (fun fact: this EP is actually a minute longer than RDJA). And who is he? A guy who follows up his most commercially successful release with an goth industrial pastiche that should send people running for the hills but in actuality becomes his best known track (regardless, I still hate it). A guy who does two gonzo remixes of said track featuring little-to-no original components (a feature not a bug as it would turn out). And who revels in being an impish, naughty bastard (Funny Little Man’s X-rated coda trumps Milk Man, which is catchy as hell but also kind of tried too hard). He’s also really fucking good at creating music you probably haven’t heard anywhere else. Bucephalus Bouncing Ball is still his best breakbeat track by some distance, with a snaky structure, elegant SAW2 melodies and a number of clever twists on its now-famous titular modular trick. Elsewhere he remixes RDJA’s To Cure a Weakling Child into something that feels like breakbeat 90s Eno (and that's a good thing). And the two pretty songs are, well, two of the prettiest he ever did. Is it his “best” release? I dunno, but of the non-ambient ones, it’s still his most listenable.

More when I feel like I get my arms around Drukqs ...

Naive Teen Idol, Thursday, 22 October 2020 15:25 (one month ago) link

The irony of complaining that an aphex twin track sounds like a piss take or throwaway is very rich. That's gotta be 30% of this guys whole catalog.

brotherlovesdub, Thursday, 22 October 2020 15:37 (one month ago) link

I know you’re just doing major albums, but you should really take a detour for Windowlicker – it’s a key piece of the puzzle.

New Adventures in WiFi (morrisp), Thursday, 22 October 2020 15:38 (one month ago) link

I agree - Come To Daddy EP does everything I like about him. Fuses prettiness, ribald mischief and bonkers complexity all in the mix and just keeps throwing ideas at you

Specific Ocean Blue (dog latin), Thursday, 22 October 2020 15:46 (one month ago) link

a lot of kind of aimless atonal noodles here—“Curtains,”

"curtains" is in my top 3 for saw ii. sounds like sci-fi noir.

billstevejim, Thursday, 22 October 2020 16:00 (one month ago) link

Goon Gumpas and Logon Rock Witch are two of my favorite tracks on RDJ, and I love how he branches out into crazy instrument combos and unique atmospherics with them (and most of the rest of the record too... it has the widest palette of any RDJ release). While Come to Daddy sounds more polished and cohesive thematically, I felt it lost the playful adventurousness of its predecessor somewhat, and he hasn't recaptured that since.

octobeard, Thursday, 22 October 2020 18:10 (one month ago) link

I shouldn't say "lost" maybe diminished. By Drukqs he'd firmly baked his style into place and lost his adventurousness by then.

octobeard, Thursday, 22 October 2020 18:12 (one month ago) link

Flow Coma remix was the last thing that sounded really fresh to me. there's a lot of good stuff since then, but yeah it lacks the sense of discovery.

lukas, Thursday, 22 October 2020 18:27 (one month ago) link

Really enjoying this revive.

The SC dump was a lot of fun, maybe the best thing of his I've encountered.

Everything's Blue In This Whorl (Raymond Cummings), Thursday, 22 October 2020 23:59 (one month ago) link

yeah I should wallow in that on shuffle right now, thanks

howls of non-specificity (sleeve), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:09 (one month ago) link

lol 2.8 GB of MP3s, wow

howls of non-specificity (sleeve), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:10 (one month ago) link

Is it all still up on SC somewhere?

Everything's Blue In This Whorl (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:11 (one month ago) link

(I downloaded it years ago but that DL is on a dead laptop.)

Everything's Blue In This Whorl (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:11 (one month ago) link

idk, I grabbed it all when it was up, message me if you want a Dropbox link or something!

howls of non-specificity (sleeve), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:12 (one month ago) link

I may take you up on that at some point. For now, though, I've got this YouTube playlist to never quite finish:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgYZ4levvfk&list=PLEsZgo3N97Mh92JGSKpkYaEuO03cKBr8b

Everything's Blue In This Whorl (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:17 (one month ago) link

lots of pure gold in that dump

brimstead, Friday, 23 October 2020 00:17 (one month ago) link

(suzanne, 2tone, martin's car, sam's car, the donkey rhubarb remix, with my family, no cares, high hats tune....)

― brimstead, Tuesday, June 9, 2015 11:13 PM (1 month ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

― brimstead, Saturday, 25 July 2015 01:18 (five years ago) link

brimstead, Friday, 23 October 2020 00:18 (one month ago) link

Damn it I can't embed this

Everything's Blue In This Whorl (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 23 October 2020 00:18 (one month ago) link

one month passes...

i'm a little suspicious of people who underrate saw 1 bc i can't actually think of a record that sounds like it. sure there is adjacent stuff that approaches it but it lacks the nigh-weightless grace

i've been going through the catalog and i am really stuck on how fucking amazing polygon window's "if it really is me" is

mellon collie and the infinite bradness (BradNelson), Thursday, 26 November 2020 00:46 (three days ago) link

Polygon Window is great; SAW I is as well. The early stuff is generally underrated, IMO

yes m!ch!gan - the feeling's forever (morrisp), Thursday, 26 November 2020 00:48 (three days ago) link

I think this was my Aphex Twin introduction, no tunefind and no lyrics = begging online for hints about 'this song with pizzicato strings' in a Scottish movie no one had seen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPKlKwiFrs8

onlyfans.com/hunterb (milo z), Thursday, 26 November 2020 00:54 (three days ago) link

Love Morvern (Ramsay didn't do any better than this and Ratcatcher for me). The Warp-released soundtrack was incredible - my way into Can and Ween.

knowing for certain the first touch of the light will finish you (fionnland), Thursday, 26 November 2020 01:13 (three days ago) link

Bytes by Black Dog Productions sounds like it

frogbs, Thursday, 26 November 2020 01:49 (three days ago) link

I know it’s probably suspect to only be into a single artist in a genre... but back in my days as a RDJ megafan (late ’90s), I checked out plenty of similar stuff — including Rephlex & Warp releases, related artists, other big “IDM” names of the day, etc. — and none of it caught my ear enough to stick. I guess it’s like someone who loves Miles but no other jazz, or whatever.

yes m!ch!gan - the feeling's forever (morrisp), Thursday, 26 November 2020 02:30 (three days ago) link

bytes doesn’t really sound like it.

brimstead, Thursday, 26 November 2020 02:36 (three days ago) link

Reference by CiM sounds like SAW I

thousand-yard spiral stairs (f. hazel), Thursday, 26 November 2020 07:03 (three days ago) link

I don't believe you! I'll give it a listen though.

lukas, Thursday, 26 November 2020 07:18 (three days ago) link

I’m checking it out now — it doesn’t.

yes m!ch!gan - the feeling's forever (morrisp), Thursday, 26 November 2020 07:26 (three days ago) link

it especially does compared to all the unlistenable trash RDJ released after SAW II

thousand-yard spiral stairs (f. hazel), Thursday, 26 November 2020 07:31 (three days ago) link

hearing a lot of new-to-me stuff during the discography run, or at least stuff i must've forgotten about. cuckoo! what a jam

mellon collie and the infinite bradness (BradNelson), Thursday, 26 November 2020 15:07 (three days ago) link

I love that CiM album. Not sure it sounds exactly like SAW but it's worth a listen

Specific Ocean Blue (dog latin), Thursday, 26 November 2020 15:14 (three days ago) link

Cuckoo has long been one of my favorites. Nothing revolutionary or anything just another great sounding tune.

dan selzer, Thursday, 26 November 2020 17:49 (three days ago) link

brad have you checked out the SoundCloud dump at all? A lot of cool saw 1 “outtakes” and stuff (mainly the stuff he uploaded first). “Suzanne” is really cool, kind of like the landscape in “green calx” after the laser battle.

brimstead, Thursday, 26 November 2020 17:53 (three days ago) link

i actually had a download of it but had to delete it to make space on my computer. i did make and often listen to to a small playlist of tracks that sounded a lot like saw 1 and 2

mellon collie and the infinite bradness (BradNelson), Thursday, 26 November 2020 18:02 (three days ago) link

Reference by CiM sounds like SAW I

Before I listened I was pretty sure this wouldn't sound like SAW I, which would be bad. Then I got to Cloud Cover and it did sound like SAW I, and I decided that was bad for different reasons. (It is a good album though.)

lukas, Thursday, 26 November 2020 22:34 (three days ago) link


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