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.