There are certain artists in the spectrum of electronica who maintain a dignified distance from the overwhelmingly populous dance music scene, that continue to blur the lines between underground and mainstream. The likes of Jon Hopkins, Autechre, and Clark have in recent years provided stellar offerings in this vein, but one artist has been more distant than most. After a 13-year absence since ‘Drukqs’, Aphex Twin hurtled out of Cornish obscurity back into the public consciousness in 2014. Having overseen the legal digital distribution of his Caustic Window LP via a Kickstarter campaign (which also acted as an affirmation of his continual relevance), Richard D. James resurfaced with Syro, a writhing, organic mass of electronic music that still refuses to sound like anyone else.
Syro’s arrival was heralded by a series of bizarre promotional stunts that exemplified James’ fascination with both the technological and the unconventional. August brought the now infamous neon-green blimp - with AFX logo proudly visible - hovering rather obtusely above Oval Space in Bethnal Green, causing frantic speculation as to what it could possibly mean. While a friend of mine hopefully (and painfully sincerely) suggested it might mean a new residency at Oval Space, more realistic assumptions abounded that there could be new Aphex material on the way. Shortly after, via the murky depths of the Deep Web, these suppositions were proven to be true: 'Syro' was revealed as being released on Warp in September, while a tracklisting, with a stream of opener ‘minipops67[120.2]’, was also provided. Moreover, the nature of this announcement raised further questions on the still-evolving relationship between the music industry and the sprawling labyrinth of opportunities and pitfalls that is the Internet.
Warp releases are often characterized by their inherent disregard for context: they are pieces of unique musicianship that are relevant both inside and outside the musical and social landscape that formed them. ‘Minipops’ proved a great example of this, seemingly right at home in the production sessions that spawned ‘Windowlicker’ 15 years ago, and yet remaining a perfect segue into the rest of an album that managed to, in part, define 2014, rather than be defined by it. James pairs sketchy broken beats with sparse acidic blurts over soaring synths on ‘XMAS_EVE10[thanaton3 mix]’, with every new left turn feeling refreshing and musically engaging.
After an opening third of the album that showcases Aphex’s ability to conjure the atmospheric and transcendental, a transition into an increasingly frantic latter section of the album is signified by ‘180db_’; its snarling opening bassline dragging us into dancefloor territory without the chance to comprehend the change that’s occurred. As the tempos increase (signified, if you hadn’t noticed, by the BPMs in the square brackets), so too does the intensity and frenetic nature of the sounds James subjects us to - as he has a penchant for. It feels representative of the increasingly clustered and technologically oppressive society we inhabit, stepping right on the threshold of being too overpowering before a nod to ‘Drukqs’ pulls us clear of the confusion. Like ‘Avril 14’, before it, or even Hopkins’ ‘Abandon Window’ of last year, ‘aisatsana ’ is a moment of clarity, of sunlight seeping through the dense clouds. It’s this fusion of common human experience and emotion, with the otherworldly dynamics of the mechanical processes that inhabit Aphex Twin’s music, which simply ensures his singularity, and, indeed, allowed him to create one of the most masterful LPs of the year.
Words: Harry Reddick