Aphex Twin: Quietus Writers Select Their Deep Cuts
, August 22nd, 2014 03:48
With new album Syro just announced Dale Berning Sawa, Joe Banks, Emily Bick, Charlie Frame, Joe Clay, Tristan Bath, Ned Raggett, John Doran and Cian Traynor select their favourite album cuts, side-project tracks, collaborations, b-sides and rarities
Aphex Twin - 'Jynweythek' from Drukqs (2001)
On Drukqs, Richard D James pushed two seemingly jarring strands – melodious simplicity and caustic frenzy – of his musical exploration to bold and compelling lengths. Some critics were dismissive of the the prettiness they saw in the first category. To me though, that dichotomy isn’t interesting. The simplicity is always a front – it belies how sophisticated James’s compositions and methods are, while any semblance of frenzy is only ever used to glaze over something equally melodic and meticulous, however fast-paced or aggro. This piece, the second of the album’s 30-strong tracklist, is as solemn and harmonious as a medieval rondeau, with skitterish, clattering accents, a kind of melding of Björk and Guillaume de Machaut. James takes his time, letting note chime with note. His use of computer-controlled piano and various percussive elements creates a sonorous meshing of bell and dampened key and rattle and clash, the sounds augmenting but never overwhelming the melody. Experimental yet resolutely tuneful, it feels timeless.
Dale Berning Sawa
Aphex Twin - 'Flaphead' from Digeridoo EP (1992)
Two whole decades ago back before drum and bass, the Twin was already cranking up BPMs on tracks like 'Digeridoo', and already on occasion hinting at the insane levels of meticulous complexity that would peak on Drukqs, ten years later. Alongside the track 'Digeridoo' though, is the monumental but mid-tempo 'Flaphead'. It's a masterpiece of deafening minimalist rave, barely shifting from the side-to-side shuffle of that central 4/4 kick stomp, seemingly projecting into some subterranean cavern out in the middle distance. A busy arsenal of buzzing laser gun synths, seemingly a prerequisite in early 90s acid techno, fires in all directions throughout, while a dozen layers of sequenced blips tease the almost tribal kick throb at the centre of things. The entire track is decidedly rough around the edges too, with needles audibly heading into the red at points throughout, and beats getting dropped noticeably. Such filthy mixing can still rub purists the wrong way today, but 'Flaphead' is Aphex Twin at his most gloriously primordial and danceable. Just try not to flap that head of yours even just a little bit…
Polygon Window - 'If It Really Is Me' from Surfing On Sine Waves
Stuck between the metallic pummelling of 'Quoth' and the robotic clatter of 'Supremacy II', 'If It Really Is Me' is an eerie oasis of nocturnal calm, and one of the few Aphex Twin tracks you could happily play to your grandmother without giving her a heart attack. Based on a simple interweaving of piano and organ lines, it's a great illustration that, alongside RDJ's talent for creating previously unheard strains of electronic noise, he also has a brilliant grasp of how melodic components can be assembled for maximum pleasure. Its metronomic beat, piano vamps like raindrops and sample of a whispered female voice drenched in reverb conjure images of driving at night through the boulevards of Jean-Luc Godard's Paris in Alphaville, the belle époque sophistication tempered by a frisson of sci-fi menace beyond the comfort of the streetlights. While perhaps something of an anomaly in the Aphex Twin back catalogue, this hypnotic piece of cosmic house works its subliminal magic by stealth rather than full-frontal attack.
Aphex Twin - 'Untitled (Rhubarb)' from Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
'Rhubarb' is the perfect example of how a piece of 'ambient' instrumental music can be emotive and meaningful, even at its most sparse. It's really just a short succession of notes without percussion, expanding and contracting in a feat of intricate sound design. There's a stillness to it, a far-away quality that amounts to something much greater than the sum of its parts. Some believe that Selected Ambient Works Volume II is on par with the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, though the reverberating warmth here seems to fit snugly between Brian Eno's Discrete Music and Boards Of Canada's 'Olson'. It's remarkable how many listeners claim 'Rhubarb' conjures a certain image (daybreak, sunset, a horizon bathed in shallow light) and how many say it instils a sense of elation, serenity or profound loss. Pulling off an effect like that requires a beautiful moment of simplicity.
Polygon Window - 'Polygon Window' from Surfing On Sine Waves (1993)
The whole of 1993's Surfing On Sine Waves album, and this track especially, were characteristic of an end of the century need for the future to just hurry up already, and end the frustration of waiting for hanging Mosaic browser windows to catch up with the explosive neon fantasies promised by Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines. Even that name, Polygon Window, calls to mind the finger-tapping, nerve-rattling fidgety wait for a perfect render to finish. There is an urgency to it; driven by a tweaked-out high-hat hiss, each new snip of the melody line flares into shape with a slight wah-flange, the future eating its own tail. A trio of fat, greasy bass notes plop themselves into the mix every so often like toilet humour: pit stops leaving skidmarks on the information superhighway. Later, a few notes wobble off pitch while the track rattles on — anxious music, paranoid music, but still signaling somebody with guts was there behind the screen to feel this stuff amping up their nervous system. Minimal got a bad reputation sometime in the late '90s because of the endless parade of bloodless cavefish dudes in hoodies stood onstage, transfixed by their laptops, trying to tap the sequencing and rhythms of this album without getting the gnarly guts of it: dance floor death. A lot of Aphex Twin was also hard to dance to, but looking back, the Polygon Window work can seem like a precursor to some of the intricate, solar plexus tugging sadness of Selected Ambient Works; it just reaches a cruder target. Polygon Window is like listening to gerbils that have been shot up with some brogrammer's unholy concoction of Red Bull and Soylent. For better or for worse, that neon future finally happened, and those twitchy animals were always the real ghosts in the machine.
Mike & Rich - 'Vodka' from Mike & Rich (1996)
One collaboration featuring the Twin that did see the day was Mike & Rich (aka Expert Knob Twiddlers), an album made with Mike 'µ-ziq' Paradinas and released on Rephlex in 1996 – the sound of a pair of equipment-obsessed techno boffins getting mullered on vodka and acid in a studio and concocting some cheesy tuneage. Many critics saw Mike P as the dominant force in the recording process, and the free-jazz keys of opener 'Mr Frosty' were certainly evocative of the music he produced under his Jake Slazenger moniker. Throughout, the playful synths and odd samples recall prime Rephlex-era µ-ziq material. But this simplistic view doesn't allow for the fact that (according to Mike P) the sessions were partly inspired by the unreleased Aphex Twin album Melodies From Mars. Plus it’s hard to imagine such a strong personality as RDJ would have been subservient to another producer – it's far more likely that he felt suitably liberated by the collaborative process, relaxed by multiple vodka shots, off his face on acid, and in the mood to create something a little bit different from his usual output. The crunchy techno and off-kilter melodies of 'Vodka' are very, very Aphex.
Aphex Twin - 'Fingerbib' from Richard D. James
This "track is a part of what i am today" is the first comment under the YouTube video for 'Fingerbib' and echoes how I feel about it. 'Fingerbib' will be playing as my coffin glides into the flames. It is absolutely exquisite. Back in the day, if I encountered a rock purist who told me that music made on machines "lacked soul" (it happened - I worked in Our Price and at a music distributor), this was the song I would refer them to. The melodies are so gorgeous and joyful that they can make hearts swell, spirits soar and eyes moisten. The fact that 'Fingerbib' can be found on the Richard D. James album, the one true masterpiece of Aphex's career, makes it even more special.
Aphex Twin - ‘Logan Rock Witch’ from Richard D. James (1996)
The Logan Rock of the title is an impressive 80 ton granite boulder, resting on a cliff top in Treen, Cornwall, which, when shoved with sufficient repetitive force, can be made to sway gently from side to side. It is also a generic Cornish term for any boulder that can be made to rock - but it seems this one is the mother of all logan rocks. The rock was once infamous in Cornwall for reasons that are simultaneously pathetic and heroic. In 1754 the Cornish geologist Dr William Borlase claimed that while the chunk of igneous stone could be rocked, levering it from its perch would be a physical impossibility. Taking this as a challenge both to himself and the Royal Navy, in 1824, Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith and a dozen crew members from the HMS Nimble armed with only bars and levers managed to rock it until it fell off the cliff. Angry residents pointed out that the Logan Rock was one of the only things that drew tourists to the region and demanded that it be put back - an action which took several months of effort by over sixty men at a huge financial cost. Of course, when it was put back in its rightful place, locals were quick to point out that it simply didn’t rock like it used to. The closing track of Richard D. James isn’t a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, rather it is the sublime conjured from the ridiculous. He relies heavily on the sound of two of the most disregarded and humble instruments he can find, the lowly jaw harp - the cheapness of which is suggested more clearly by its derogatory common name - and the signifier of all pratfalls, the swanee or slide-whistle. And when you add to this the Aboriginal sounding percussion, the non-sequitur peal of church bells and that other noise which might as well be a shatterproof ruler being thwoinged against a desk lid by a mischievous school child, then clearly this should result in something that sounds like a mad man’s breakfast of kooky cacophony. (And a quick look at Rate Your Music reveals that plenty of self-professed AFX fans actually do see it this way.) To my ears however, marshalled by James, these noises combine (with sombre organ and staccato synth refrain) in a tapestry that is beguiling, bone-chilling and moving when taken as a whole. Local Treen legend once had it that the Logan Rock was a giant who was murdered by his wife before being transformed into a hunk of granite. This song however suggests an even darker bit of folklore known only to Richard James himself. (I can’t help but hear a mournful funeral march played on all the instruments left behind by children who were unlucky enough to fall victim to the Logan Rock Witch, its shuffling pace reflecting some slow nighttime procession to the top of the cliff.) This song casts James, not as a West Country, acid fried, rave innovator but a contemporary Cornish folk musician, bringing this bit of coast to uncanny and vivid life in music.
AFX - 'VBS.Redlof.B' from Analord 11 (2005)
The Analord 12"s, released throughout 2005, proved divisive among RDJ's ardent fan base. Many felt it was just a collection of archive tracks he decided to chuck out to make a bit of money, replete with gimmicky packaging – the first 12" (the original pressing of Analord 10 released late 2004) came in a pricey faux-lather binder limited to a thousand copies. But Analord was a passion project, a chance for RDJ to indulge his love of analogue equipment. Few can rival his collection of synths, polysynths and drum machines, and throughout his career had stated his intention to make an album using just this gear. 'VBS.Redlof.B' was on Analord 11, the final 12" of the series, was named after a computer virus and showed that he hadn't lost the knack of making tunes that explode on the dancefloor. The track works off a wobbly acid bassline and kicking beats. Sublime washes of melody permeate throughout and he mangles it all up in the middle, before returning to the slick acid grooves. It's a stunning track and proves that this music came straight from his warped heart.
Aphex Twin - 'Alberto Balsalm' from I Care Because You Do
Over and above his uncanny way with a tune, his ability to hop from style to style at the flick of a switch, his seemingly limitless font of ideas and his gleeful, cultish persona, the one thing I cherish about RDJ is how he never refuses a good gimmick. On 'Alberto Balsalm' the gimmick is a chair (or some other large object) being shunted across a hard floor at the beginning of every bar. This jarring noise stands in contrast to one of Aphex’s most delicate melodies, a series of interlocking vamps which build up into something resembling a wordless verse-chorus-verse structure. Listen closer to the rhythm and other found sounds - a clicking register key, metallic pipes being hit – start to reveal themselves. There’s a reason 'Alberto Balsalm' remains a fan favourite and one of his very best tracks.
Aphex Twin - 'Tha' from Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
This track, for me, is the musical equivalent of a sense of wonder, that moment when something unfathomable suddenly shifts into focus and you begin to grasp an entire world beyond. Richard D James is an incredibly clever and dextrous musician, who can take his work in a thousand directions. Here his mastery lies in how little he moves – in how much he's paired it all down and thinned it all out, until only the essence remains. You can count the elements on one hand, and none of them are sounds you can easily grab a hold of, or satisfactorily describe. They're evasive, like water escaping through cracks and folds, hinting at great expanses and depths out of sight. A bulbous bass line sitting right on the edge of what's audible, a rhythm made of quiet echoes and syncopated gasps and dampened, deadened beats, a slight analogue synth melody – just the same six notes, over and over – with intermittent voices saying things just beyond your reach. At 9:07, it's already a pretty long piece, but, like the best Theo Parrish, the elegantly paced minimalism of it makes it one you can just listen to forever.
Dale Berning Sawa
Aphex Twin - 'Xtal' from Selected Abmient Works 85-92 (1992)
For a lot of people, this is almost where it all starts, regardless of the clutch of earlier EPs in 1991 under various names. But a month after the first formal Aphex Twin single 'Digeridoo' came Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and this was the first track, something at once gentle, driving, melancholy and perfectly precise. 'Xtal' reinvents no wheels; if anything it is exactly what it is, a polite song by an already precocious young talent. But it's all in the elements - the soft, sprightly lead melody lost in the echo that swathes the across-the-warehouse deep drum pulse, the wordless female sing-song vocal, the clipped beats and the descending three note progression which eventually dominates the song. He perfected a form early - the next step was to explode it.
Aphex Twin - 'XMD 5a' from Analord 10 (2005)
After dividing opinions with Drukqs, Richard D James took a hasty step back, plundering his stock of old analogue synths and producing the hours and hours of material for the incendiary Analord 12" series. Ten of the eleven total Analord EPs are credited to AFX, but on volume ten he switches back to the Aphex Twin moniker, and not without reason. While the lion’s share of the series is populated with vintage analogue techno, Analord 10 re-explores the ambient breakbeats and burgeoning sense of menace that defined the man’s late-90s high point. Opening with the distant jangling of synthetic bells, the seven minute 'XMD 5a' builds offbeats and shaker rhythms into a groovy haunting acid jam atop a killer 303 bassline, before a dwindling atonal piano sample buzzes into view for the midsection. James ultimately layers longer and denser synth lines on top of the mutant piano, adding handclaps and cranking up the volume for his best coda since the climax of Windowlicker. The Analord project undoubtedly ranks amongst James’ best work under any moniker, and 'XMD 5a' is one of the series' many flashes of utter genius. It exemplifies James' ability - despite mainly inhabiting a world of cold mechanic synthesis - to somehow create living, breathing music. He can tease out the ghosts in the machines, and get them singing like no-one else.
Polygon Window - 'Quino-Phec' from Surfing On Sine Waves (1993)
Although Selected Ambient Works II is Aphex’s sole ambient album proper, examples of the style can still be found squirreled away on other releases. 'Quino-Phec' rounds off the Polygon Window album’s minimalist techno excursions with an ostensibly beatless soundscape replete with a chugging sound too distant to be called a rhythm. A good friend once told me about how he came very close to death while listening to this tune out walking on a summer’s day. So lulling was its effect that he decided to take a lie down on a nice, long flat piece of land. Never mind that this happened to be a railway line as luckily the track finished and he got back up just as a train came hurling towards him. That distant chugging will never sound the same again.
The Tuss – 'Rushup I Bank 12' from Rushup Edge (2007)
"People seem more interested in speculation and celebrity than content, quality or music. Be careful you don't miss something really great that isn't really famous." So said the Rephlex co-owner Grant Wilson-Claridge in 2007, around the time the controversy about the identity of The Tuss was raging. Was it Aphex? Turned out it was, but Wilson-Claridge had a point - did it really matter? The quality of Rushup Edge, the mini-album released under the moniker ("tuss" in Cornish dialect means erection, the first clue that this was RDJ making mischief again) was so amazing – intricate, abstract, analogue acid-techno – that should have been the focus. Among the many highs was the mangled machine funk of 'Rushup I Bank 12'. The drum programming absolutely SMACKS it without resorting to the ludicrous off-kilter rhythms (typical of the worst excesses of drill), combined with twinkling pianos, Human League-esque chord sequences and the sickest, squelchiest, avin' it acid squark.
Aphex Twin - 'Curtains' from Selected Ambient Works II (1994)
The concept of hypnogogic electronica has almost become a cliché in the wake of practitioners such as Boards Of Canada, but just about every track on Selected Ambient Works II channels the woozy feeling of sensory slippage that happens between consciousness and sleep – it's also the point at which the lucid dreaming that RDJ claims is the inspiration for much of his music can begin. Going back to SAW II, I was surprised by how embedded many of the tracks were in my memory, but it's track seven, otherwise known as 'Curtains', that I remember being immediately disturbed by when I first heard it, like a half-remembered nightmare leaking into the waking world. All it seems to be is a loop of the most naïve melody imaginable played over and over again on a vibraphone sunk at the bottom of the ocean. But it pulls at your sleeve, leading you through the murk and up a never-ending flight of stairs, the way occasionally lit by a few twinkling piano notes. It exists in that 70s zone of creepy schools TV themes – this one in particular – and fittingly, as it slows down towards the end, it resembles nothing so much as the scariest music box ever opened.
Aphex Twin - 'Bucephalus Bouncing Ball' from Come To Daddy EP (1997)
Luke Vibert may have invented drill & bass but it was Aphex who took the style and ran with it. Exactly how this track was programmed is open to speculation but the effect is like having a mass of differently-sized ball-bearings dropped from various heights onto your head. The fact the rhythm is still vaguely danceable is testament to how far leftfield producers like Aphex, µ-ziq and Squarepusher were willing to subvert the drum & bass template. In this case RDJ takes it to the extreme with perverse zeal. Mind-bending when it first appeared - perhaps even offensive to gatekeepers of 'proper' drum & bass - 'Bucephalus Bouncing Ball' was an indignant 'fuck you' to purism and remains one of the most thrillingly weird dance tracks ever produced.
Seefeel - 'Time to Find Me (AFX Fast Mix)' from 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)
When 26 Mixes For Cash came out the title gave a sense of how James purportedly viewed doing any sort of remixing - most everything was essentially his own composition with maybe a small hint or sample of the original at most. But the pristine electronic/shoegaze approach of future labelmates Seefeel was one of the key exceptions, with James providing not one but two mixes of a song from their first EP More Than Space on a followup remix single. The slow mix and the fast mix essentially differ in just that - overall speed - but the core of the song remains in both, James stretching out Sarah Peacock's voice with a bit more reverb and, in the fast mix, adding a busier but still spare sounding beat loop gently propelling the song forward. In a contemporary interview James praised Seefeel and said all he did was just add a further 'groove' to the song, a light touch that resulted in something that felt less like a remix and more like a collaboration.
Aphex Twin - 'Flim' from Come To Daddy EP (1997)
'Flim' opens with a high note rushing in, then drops into something lovely. It's sad and elated and bashful all at once. It has the playfulness of 'Bucephalus Bouncing Ball' but with almost mournful strings and the feeling of a nursery-rhyme ditty. It's a slightly unhinged lullaby for a generation giddy with the rush and the potency of Aphex Twin’s abrasive, compulsive, hardboiled brilliance. It's 2:57 of surprising gentleness – sweetness even – from an EP, the title track of which is anything but.
Dale Berning Sawa
Squarepusher/AFX – 'Freeman, Hardy & Willis Acid' from We Are Reasonable People (1998)
Luke Vibert sent many a fan boy's pulse racing when he disclosed (in an interview with The Milk Factory in 2003) that all of the electronic music scene's powerhouses had worked together at some point. "(Me and Richard) do work loads. Nearly every time I see him, we make music together. Same with Squarepusher. We’ve done tracks with Tom, I’ve done tracks with Mike Paradinas, everyone’s done tracks together." Unfortunately, not many of these collaborations have ever seen the light of day as, apparently, they aren't good enough – too unfocused, sprawling and messy to be worthy of a proper release. However, one track that did make it into the public domain was the collaboration between Tom 'Squarepusher' Jenkinson and RDJ under his AFX guise. Recorded in 1998 to celebrate Warp Records' 100th release and named after the now defunct high street shoe retailer, 'Freeman, Hardy & Willis Acid' marries some mournful Aphexian melodies to jazzy, rolling Squarepusher d&b beats. Then the ante is upped as the drums go all splattercore and it finally delivers on the acid promised by the title with some vintage squidge.
808 State - 'Flow Coma (AFX Remix)' from 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)
'Tune', as we used to say round my way.