With Aphex Twin‘s sixth studio album, Syro, due out next week on September 23, some of you might be wondering what the big deal is with this electronic producer who’s been off the grid for nearly 13 years.
Absent for much of the current resurgence in electronic music, Aphex Twin/Richard D. James’ sound has the benefit of not sounding locked in one particular era of dark, ambient music, a dark twin to the more up-tempo virtuosity of his contemporary, Squarepusher. It’s a sound unto itself, and it’s worth looking over Aphex Twin’s discography to see what makes him so compelling and give you some insight into why we’re so excited about what he’s up to next.
“Come to Daddy” – Come to Daddy (1997)
The artist at his most evil. Come to Daddy the EP and the single itself were my introduction to the artist back in ’97, a static-ridden alternative to the then-current rise of radio-friendly electronic acts like The Chemical Brothers.
This was electronic music, all production excess, noise, and – thanks to Chris Cunningham’s excellent video – horror, unmatched by any of the artist’s contemporaries at the time.
“Come to Daddy,” like many of Aphex Twin’s tracks, use its spoken vocals like a creepy lure, both freaking you out and drawing you in. Around 4:15 in the video (approximately 2:30 in the actual album track), things get next-level, as “Come to Daddy” unleashes a howl of pure crazy, before the track settles down into its final movement.
“You Can’t Hide Your Love (Hidden Love Mix)” – 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)
The second “best of” album in Aphex Twin’s discography, 26 Mixes For Cash collects remixes from the producer throughout his 90’s and early 00’s career. Many of the mixes from the 2003 double album match up perfectly with what you’d expect from one of the artist’s tracks: a little melancholy, a little weirdness, and (as with “Debase”) a little bit of the cinematic.
But the real standout is his remix of “You Can’t Hide Your Love,” which strains out some of the electro pop sunshine from DMX Krew’s (no relation) 1997 single.
Listen to what James does here, filtering the already artificial-sounding vocals from the original track, while speeding it up with a mechanically fast tempo. The low-end synth notes in the remix replace the dance-friendly Casio-track, while the beat is recessed all the way to the back. “You Can’t Hide Your Love” is so interesting because James has created an Aphex Twin-verse version of a pop song and it’s strangely danceable.
“Eggy Toast” – Mike & Rich/Expert Knob Twiddlers (1996)
This oddity from James’ 1996 collaboration with Mike Paradinas (a/k/a μ-Ziq) is, like the track above, notable for how the artist is able to graft his own sound onto something altogether unexpected. In this case, the very tight loop of what sounds like the opening to a piece of ballroom dance music gets interrupted by synth instrumentation early on, making the classical mechanical.
“Windowlicker” – Windowlicker (1999)
It’s hard to separate “Windowlicker” the single from “Windowlicker” the video – James’ second (and best) collaboration with director Chris Cunningham. Both are so intrinsically linked to James’ work and artistic persona, his sinister brand hiding behind an ever-present logo and leering mask. Once you’ve watched the video, it’s hard not to hear the song and conjure up James’ Joker-smile death mask.
(I kind of love the hip-hop inspired opening beat in the video and wish it had made its way into one of the singles, but as is, “Windowlicker” is excellent.)
As for the track itself, “Windowlicker” modulates the musicians’ voice into lilting coos with the occasional thrusting “ah” alongside French dialog that Wikipedia helpfully informs me was James’ then-girlfriend saying “J’aime faire des croquettes au chien” or “I like to make dog nuggets.” It’s playful and dark, and like “Come to Daddy” blows up at the end before shredding itself to pieces in its final moments or distortion and noise.
Not to be outdone by anyone else’s remix, James would release his own fresh and funky turn with 26 Mixes for Cash
“Vordhosbn” – Drukqs (2001)
It was tough to pick just one track from James’ last studio (you know, before his next one). So, you know, I didn’t – two ended up making the list.
But “Vordhosbn” is maybe the most striking of all of the tracks from 2001’s Drukqs, a frenetic stretch of what’s almost drum n bass in its first minutes before barreling onward into something that moves with the precision of a fly’s heartbeat. There’s something strangely insect-like about the way “Vordhosbn” twitches–clicking and chattering, assaulting you with tiny little beats, punctuated by lower, more bass-heavy moments.
“Avril 14th” – Drukqs (2001)
A total 180 from “Vordhosbn” is this short, simple, and gentle little piano track from James. Some of you might recognize the melody, having been sampled by Kanye West for his “Blame Game” from 2011’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Basically, it’s a chance for James to explore his virtuosity away from all of the equipment, using the simplicity of a piano track to evoke something that his heavily-produced work can’t really conjure: unfettered melancholy.
“Alberto Balsam” – …I Care Because You Do (1995)
One last departure from the frenetic is this 1995 click/ambient track which sees the musician mixing it up with his approach, evoking steel sounds in his instrumentation while producing something almost sweet. Nope, not “almost” – “Alberto Balsam” (and the rest of this album) feel like the artist’s last movement in the ambient world before fully embracing darker sounds the next year with the brilliant Richard D. James Album.
“Alberto Balsam” works so well because it’s not really showing off anything that we don’t already know from his previous work, just concentrating it into something that’s both accessible and occasional dreamy. Perhaps one of the finest and most assured compositions from James, it’s the one you should start with before diving deep into the dark end.
Let us know which version of Aphex Twin is your favorite in the comments below and on Twitter! Syro drops on September 23 via Warp.