Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Where to start with Aphex Twin?

Inspired by the Gateways to Geekery articles on the AV Club website, I realised there are many musical delights I have discovered and believe that quite often, it can be daunting for an otherwise avid fan to break into the work of the more prolific of artists. There are a number of artists, whose breadth of artistic output is so dense and sprawling that many are too scared to dip in their toes and sample the joys that their art could bring.

In the first of these articles, I would like to dicuss the musical ouput of Irish born, Cornish electronic musician, Richard David James, known to most as the iconic 90’s techno producer Aphex Twin.

Wherein does the difficulty lie?
One of the most notable features of James’ musical output – and certainly one of the first things a fan will mention – is the sheer range of names under which he has openly or secretly released music. To date the list includes (but is potentially not limited to) Aphex Twin, AFX, Gak, Polygon Window, Caustic Window, Bradley Strider, Powerpill, The Tuss, Soit PP, Diceman, Blue Calx and Q-Chastic. The latter few pseudonyms were used for the release of single songs on various compilations and “The Tuss” is one of his few nommes de plume which has never been confirmed by James’ himself but the musical style leaves no doubt for the fan.

As well as the vast list of names and musical styles, some of the difficulty with James comes from the fact that some of his most celebrated (once again, amongst the more avid of his fans) have never seen the light of day and exist either as occasional one-off  or short run, white label 12” records or are passed between fans as digital recordings of varying quality.

Another barrier (or draw, depending on your outlook) is James’ elusive nature and playful approach to the media. Much for which he is famed could well have been an elaborate ruse or downright untruth leaving both the mainstream media and fans on the back foot as to the various stories and legends attributed to their hero.

Where to start with James’ work depends on how au fait you are initially with the genre in which he works (and which he subverts). I will assume that the majority of people approaching James’ work fresh are not familiar with electronic music in general, as those who are are more than likely already familiar with his work. As the casual dabbler becomes a fan, it can be quite interesting as already familiar music is uncovered from various television advertisements and televisual documentary series.

Gateway Album(s)
Selecting a single album as a starting point for James’ work is no easy task as his sound and style changes so distinctly between albums. There are two potential starting points: Syro (2014) and Richard D James Album (1996). 

To the uninitiated, both albums sound like nothing else you will have ever heard, though the most recent album is his most accessible overall. The ten tracks on display are very tuneful and display James’ diversity as a  composer and prowess as a crafter of unique sounds and studio wizard.

The first track, “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)” is playful and fluffy and is followed by “Xmas_Evet10 (Thanaton3 Mix)”, one of James’ most gorgeous and dense creations.  The third track, “4 Bit 9d Api+e+6” has shades of 1980s funk, which at times reminds me of Prince and then “180db_” shows off how James can make something distinctly Aphex Twin with as few elements as possible in this stripped back dance floor track.. The rest of the album rises towards a rhythmic and melodic crescendo before gently leaving us with a contemplative solo piano piece named after James’ wife “Aisatsana”.

The latter release is also very melodic but ferocious in its rhythmic style and comes in at a very short 32 minutes. This was the first Aphex Twin album I bought and sat down a listened to in its entirety. It is unlike anything else and frantic though it can be at times has a delicate touch and is melodically rich and is therefore a good gateway into his work. The opening track “4” is gorgeous, and its name makes more sense since James unloaded close to 200 of his unreleased studio tracks onto Soundcloud in early 2015 (before promptly removing it all within a few weeks) as one of those was titled “3” and was reminiscent of this album opener and shows that its name comes from its place in an unknown (to all but James) series of melodic songs in the same vein. Also notable is “Fingerbib”, the title a reference to a 1970s/1980s UK Television puppet show “Fingerbobs”, which is a gorgeous, playful track. The entire album is flawless from start to finish.

Venturing Further
The next steps with James work depends on how much you like electronic music. Some of it is more repetitive and less melodic to the uninitiated, though there are  many exceptions.

His first official album is 1992’s “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, which is a lovely collection of early ambient works, which are predominantly gentle and rhythmic. The “Come to Daddy Mini Album” (1996) comprised of two four track EPs also contains some of James’ most gorgeous and interesting tracks after the incessant violence and heavily metal insanity (this is a good thing) of the opening, title track.

“DrukQs” (2001), James’ magnum opus – a double album comprising a wealth of various styles including some frantic paced mayhem, gentle prepared piano pieces (which may or may not be played by remote control robots) and ambient interludes.

Strap Yourself In
James has two magnum opi, the first of which is 1994’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. Another sprawling work this is a double album (triple on vinyl) of emotive soundscapes. It is dense and rewards multiple listens with each listen uncovering something undiscovered from the last.

AFX’s Analord series, is an eleven recrord (rounded out with additional digital downloads) series focusing purely on the sound of analogue synthesisers, though until “Syro” contained some of James’ most melodically complex work. There is a lot to love in this series, though depending on your taste can take some picking and chosing. The physical releases are rare and expensive and the digital releases were only available from the now defunct label co-owned by James, Rephlex Records so listening to these could prove difficult.

Analogue Bubblebath 5, is one of the easiest on the ear of the AFX Analogue Bubblebath series, though this again has never been officially released and only exists on a very short run of unlabeled vinyl with very few copies in existence.

“Surfing on Sinewaves” is the single release from 1992 under the Polygon Window pseudonym and is very distinct in style and form, though its cold, machine like quality makes it essential listening for the discerning fan.

Listen below to a four hour chronological mix of James' music in two parts featuring James under many of his guises.