Aphex Twin – Syro

It must have been 2005 or 2006 when I discovered the music of Aphex Twin. I was 16 or 17 and I found out about it the way a lot of music fans in my generation did: via Radiohead’s Kid A and the barrage of marketing material that followed the album’s release in 2000. I remember listening to it for the first time in my parents’ car on a road trip to see family in Scotland and, like a good many people hearing it for the first time, thinking ‘What the fucking hell is this?’

It spoke another language – one from a place that I didn’t know existed and could barely imagine. If I was to understand Kid A – and I desperately wanted to – I would have to find that place and learn that language. I spent the next few months reading about and listening to the artists that had influenced the band’s thinking during that time. I read about DJ Shadow, Charles Mingus, Olivier Messiaen and many other greats. One artist seemed to be cited more than any other: Aphex Twin, real name Richard D. James.

I started from the beginning and over the course of a few months ploughed through just about everything James had released. Obviously, it was a steep learning curve. Growing up on a musical diet of Britpop, Top of the Pops and the begrudgingly tolerated classical loved by my grandfather hadn’t prepared me for anything as abstract as Selected Ambient Works Volume II or as abrasive as much of the material on Drukqs.

Eventually, though, I acquired the taste and enjoyed the music. Despite their sparseness, the early ambient releases were vividly evocative and undeniably gorgeous. The more diverse mid-90s releases were multi-layered and emotionally engaging on a level that I didn’t know rave-influenced drum and bass could be. Windowlicker and Come To Daddy, the ironic singles released in response to his growing fame, were clearly joke tracks but still contained enough substance to be worth revisiting.

For a 90s kid who had grown up during the End Of History, this was amazing. I’d come to accept the idea that everything that could be done in art, literature, music – in life – had been done. Culture as I knew and understood it was corporate to the core and there was no idea that hadn’t been reverse-engineered and monetised. Concepts like originality existed to be sneered at. It was impossible to come up with an original idea, we were told: the best anyone could aim to do was to affect to produce original work ironically, all while lifting liberally from the past.

The music of Aphex Twin convinced me that this was all complete nonsense. He wasn’t the first electronic musician, but he was the first I’d heard that made electronic music that seemed to follow in the footsteps of Mozart rather than those of Giorgio Moroder. As pretentious as that sounds, that was how I interpreted it.

Inevitably, I wanted more. In the months and years that followed, I moved on to Autechre, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada and other luminaries of the mid-90s Warp Records back catalogue, and from there to more contemporary releases from Fennesz, Four Tet and Flying Lotus as well as techno artists like Modeselektor, Monolake and Alex Smoke. Almost all of this widened my eyes at first, but eventually sunk in and revealed its essential beauty.

The original trigger for all of this, Kid A, seems exponentially less opaque and hostile now. When Radiohead were being promoted as if they had reinvented the wheel, James had said that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course he didn’t: he and many others had been producing far more experimental music away from the mainstream for decades beforehand. Next to their output, Radiohead’s seemed almost twee; lovely in its own way, but undeniably a watered down and attractively repackaged version of the original ideas.

This brings us nicely onto Syro, the new Aphex Twin album.

Listening to music after weeks spent excitedly waiting to hear it for the first time is perhaps the worst way to absorb it, so I’ve given it a few days and several plays and let my thoughts settle before putting them into writing.

As one would expect, Syro is incredibly well made, bursting with ideas and energy. The music itself is very good: it’s as complex, diverse and detailed as ever. The songwriting on every track is excellent. Every Richard D. James hallmark is here, from the opening track’s demented, insistent vocals and skittering, glitch beats to the freaked-out drum and bass of 180db_, to the unexpectedly moving prepared piano piece that draws the album to a close.

There’s something that’s stopping me loving Syro, though. It struck me immediately as too welcoming, too melodic, too accessible and the more I listen to it the more it bothers me that there’s nothing here that stops me in my tracks and makes me wonder what the hell it is that I’ve just heard.

It’s all too familiar. We’ve had demented, insistent vocals and skittering, glitch beats before on Windowlicker, freaked-out drum and bass from Richard D. James Album onwards and unexpectedly moving prepared piano on Drukqs. James’ songwriting may be excellent but it feels somehow wrong that he has released and heavily promoted an album that consists of little more than some melodic tracks featuring his favourite compositional tricks.

Something in me says it shouldn’t be possible to play a new Aphex Twin album and experience nostalgia, but that is what happens with Syro. Most of the songs could have appeared on any mid-90s Aphex Twin release, while some of its melodies and textures seem to have been lifted straight out of Autechre’s Incunabula or Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy, Warp classics that their makers now consider so quaint as to be unlistenable.

Aphex Twin has somehow become ‘retro’ and that’s just not right on a very basic level. He’s not supposed to be electronic music’s equivalent of The Strokes, repackaging the best bits of a romanticised past and presenting them as shiny and new so that younger generations can experience for themselves the thrill their elders had the first time around.

He’s supposed to be making the music of the future. He’s supposed to be the guy the electronica version of The Strokes copies. He’s supposed to be the original. On Syro, he’s a parody of himself. He’s Aphex Twin Lite.

Perhaps his form has let him down. After so many years of electronic music that’s been made with ProTools, Cubase and Ableton, music produced almost entirely with analogue equipment is always going to seem old hat at best, downright gimmicky at worst. In James’ capable hands the result is commendably listenable and engaging, but ultimately insubstantial.

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Levante UD 0-5 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review


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FC Barcelona 1-0 APOEL FC: Tactical Review


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In Defence Of Roy Hodgson

Given that it’s international week and the transfer window has just closed, it’s only natural that the knives are out on Fleet Street.

Newspapers and websites can’t sell copies or harvest clicks with the usual fill of club match reports and transfer rumours, so instead we’ve had a week of attention-seeking columns bemoaning the state of the England team, deriding the Premier League’s poisonous impact on the game and calling for Roy Hodgson’s head on a plate.

It can’t be denied that the English national game is a shambles or that the Three Lions are a joke. The World Cup wasn’t as bad as many made out, but the fact remains that they generally play turgid, unimaginative football and have done for as long as memory serves. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and, if we are feeling extremely generous, Jack Wilshere aside, there are no English players one can imagine playing with distinction for any of international football’s leading sides.

The Premier League is more concerned with making itself football’s NBA to allow any of its billions of pounds trickle down into the Football League, and the world-famous clubs that populate its upper echelons have too much money at stake to offer more than two or three places in their squads to English kids who will inevitably make youthful mistakes that cost them points. Due to the Premier League’s avarice, the Football League is light-years away from being able to develop these youngsters into top-level international footballers.

These truths are self-evident and it is only right that they are written about and reported on. However, the clamour for the removal of Roy Hodgson is nonsense. As far as I can tell, it based on nothing but nationalistic hubris and fuelled by the need to fill column inches with something eye-catching and controversial.

This is not to say that Hodgson is perfect. He isn’t. It was obvious when he was parachuted in with Euro 2012 looming large that his reign would be divisive and that there would be a time when the esteemed gentlemen of the English press wanted him gone.

After all, Hodgson stands at odds with everything the Premier League and its marketing have conditioned us to want. He is a quiet, awkward and avuncular man with bizarre tics and pragmatic ideas about how football should be played. His career has been a slow-burner; his eventual success the result of the experience gained as an itinerant manager of middling sides, often in unheralded, faraway leagues.

He was never going to be the messianic ideologue that marched into St George’s Park, tore up the FA’s player development manual and started again from scratch, Cruyff-style. Nor was he going to sit in a room full of journalists and give them the jingoistic, delusional quotes they needed to make a saleable story. No-one is disputing either of those facts, though the relevance of the second is questionable.

What is up for discussion is whether or not these mean he should be immediately dismissed after Monday night’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland.

Even if England lose – and there is every chance they will, especially if the increasingly pointless Wayne Rooney plays instead of Raheem Sterling in the number ten position – Hodgson should remain in charge. There are two obvious and irrefutable reasons why.

The first is that there is no other candidate to do the job. The current bookies’ favourite to replace Hodgson is Gary Neville. His popularity comes from speaking knowledgeably and convincingly on Sky Sports’ football coverage, but he has no management experience and has only coached twice: first for a few months at Bury while studying for his UEFA licences, and then as part of Hodgson’s current regime. There is no evidence to suggest Neville is yet ready to stand on his own two feet as a manager, let alone oversee the root-and-branch reform of English coaching.

Behind Neville in the minds of the bookies are José Mourinho, Gareth Southgate, Glenn Hoddle, Alan Pardew, and Harry Redknapp. Setting Mourinho aside as obviously unattainable and patently unsuited to the task at hand anyway, we are left with a depressing list of hopeless has-beens and never-will-bes. For all his imperfections, Hodgson is obviously a better manager than all of them.

The second reason to keep Hodgson is that he’s perfectly suited to working with this generation of players. As previously stated, the Premier League has long since abandoned England’s youngsters. Talented players in academies all over the country hit a glass ceiling at 18 or 19 and their progression ends right there. Until we find a way to integrate these kids and get them playing every week, we won’t produce players capable of dominating games against the very best – the long-running trend of England players who can run all day but who play with their heads down and their brains disengaged will continue.

We can pretend we live in an ideal world in which a genius would come take the job and immediately unleash a Bielsista combination of tiki-taka and gegenpressing on an unsuspecting and helpless world, but in reality it makes perfect sense for England’s second-tier squad to have a manager who specialises in managing second-tier teams.

Put simply, there’s no English Pep Guardiola on standby, and even if there was, no good would come from giving him a squad as poor as England’s. That might not sound like much of an endorsement for Roy Hodgson, but the truth is no-one’s case is stronger – even now.

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Villarreal CF 0-1 FC Barcelona: Tactical Review


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