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Aphex Twin - Syro: A First Listen Review
Joe Clay , September 5th, 2014 00:01

First there came the blimp, then the graffiti, then the deep web album announcement, then a tQ scribe bound for a secretive listening party to hear Richard D. James' most celebrated guise making a long-awaited return. But is it any good? Joe Clay reports back from the Warp offices

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Welcome back, Lord Aphex of Kernow! Child prodigy, music maker, lucid dreamer, bank dweller, tank driver, sandpaper player, wilful fucker, Cornish nutter… the merry prankster of UK electronic music has returned after a 13-year absence with a brand spanking new album Syro, released on his alma mater Warp Records, to seize his crown back from the EDM wannabes. At least that's the story – the reality is rather more prosaic. Richard D. James never really went away, at least not for as long as they'd have you believe. In the baker's dozen years since Drukqs, he has actually released 62 tracks (more than four and a half hours' worth of music) via the Analord project in 2005 (the first 12”, released in 2004, came out under the Aphex Twin name, rather than the AFX moniker used for the rest of the project) and ten tracks (an EP and a mini LP) under the pseudonym The Tuss in 2007. And we're not talking second-rate, shitty music not worthy of the legend; we're talking A-grade quality analogue acid techno of the stone cold classic variety. But hey – why let the truth get in the way of the hype? If you take this version as the gospel, there wouldn't be any need for a blimp, an announcement on the deep web, covert listening sessions and signing of disclaimers promising you won't talk about it until an agreed date, and where's the fun in that? This sort of cloak and dagger myth-making is what RDJ is all about and Warp is understandably chuffed to be releasing another record from their favourite son. It would be churlish to piss on their parade...

But let's just have a gentle tinkle on the march past – anybody who has kept abreast of what James has been up to in the years since Drukqs, won't be startled by Syro. There are no jaw-dropping WTF!? moments. That's not to say that Syro isn't any good (it's very, very good), but it is missing any startling innovations that make you think, “Holy fuck! Did that just happen?” The biggest disappointment to these ears is that there is nothing as mind-meltingly fresh as 'Digeridoo', 'On', 'Girl/Boy Song' or 'Windowlicker' to name but four of his groundbreaking greatest hits. Sure, this a first listen review, but that last statement is not knee-jerk. I know how I felt when I first heard those tracks, and I may have changed in the intervening years, but nothing on Syro comes close. Then again, nothing on Drukqs came close, but my initial expectation when I heard there was a new Aphex Twin album was that he'd done something incredible. 'Windowlicker' proved that he had a canny ear for pop music, and I wondered (hoped) that his reason for resurfacing as Aphex Twin on Warp Records was to deliver a game-changing album of mutant pop music. After all, as just mentioned, he's released plenty of quality, banging, Aphex-style acid techno under various pseudonyms in the years since Drukqs, so why bring Aphex Twin back to life now if it was just to release more of the same?

The Tuss and Analord series, rather than Drukqs or either of the SAW albums, are the key reference points for the majority of Syro. Opener 'minipops 67 [source field mix]' many fanboy/girls will recognise as the “Manchester Track”, so-called because it was first played during a 2007 live set at the Warehouse Project, and subsequently shared on YouTube, its provenance the subject of heated debate on message boards thereafter. It is vintage Aphex (well, seven years old at least), with James's heavily-treated, soulful R&B vocals blended into a serene backdrop of melodic, warped, groovy techno. At points it sounds like several different Aphex Twin songs playing at the same time, and is the closest thing on Syro to the warped pop nous he demonstrated with 'Windowlicker'.

Second track 'XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]' may also sound familiar – previously known as the “Metz Track” due to it airing in a set James played in the French city in 2010, it extends into ten minutes of lush, layered, funky acid squelch. It seems perverse to make fans wait 13 years for new Aphex material and then serve up an opening salvo of songs they've heard before. It's the aural equivalent of James putting a reassuring arm around the listener's shoulder and saying – “Hey, it's going to be OK. I'm back and it's not shit.” The one-time agitator has mellowed – he's 43 now and a father of two. The majority of EDM fans under the age of 25 will probably have turned off half way through when the drop failed to materialise. That's fine – this isn't a record for them, but seeing as this is the first Aphex album to be released since the EDM explosion (and considering James is often cited as an influence by the key protagonists of that scene) it seems worth making the point that Syro is far too idiosyncratic and complex to have mass appeal.

The bpms come down for 'produk 29', with I Care Because You Do-era Twin an immediate reference point for what starts out as a jazzy, cheesy, almost easy listening, foot-tapper. Then there is a sample of some girls chatting, “When we were at that club…” they say, before something unintelligible, and then one of them spits “fucking whore”, and the beats take on the more robust form of a kicking hip-hop break.

It's back into 120bpm territory for '4 bit 9d api+e+6', another track that could easily have been on The Tuss or Analord. In fact, it was at this point during the listening that I started pondering, what if in 2007 James had decided to take the tracks created under the cover of The Tuss guise to Warp Records and released it as Aphex Twin? Would that record have got the same levels of hype and anticipation afforded to Syro? Probably. It's another example of how music these days is all about the brand, the Warp/Aphex dream team elevating this record to the status where it gets a Q cover and listening parties, and lengthy, pontificating first listen reviews like this. '4 bit 9d api+e+6' is slightly more rhythmically complex than anything on Analord, and while it is named in the spirit of label mates Autechre, it's actually very groovy, almost discofied, Aphex techno aimed squarely at the dancefloor. 

The bpms creep up again for '180db_', which starts out as clattering techno with warped hoover noises, before a breakbeat is dropped and it turns into a slab of gnarly, crusty techno that sounds like something from a Spiral Tribe DJ set from a 90s free party rave-up. And Syro starts to build up a real head of steam as 'CIRCLONT6A [syrobonkus mix]' kicks in. This is like the deep acid of Analord on anabolic steroids; beefed-up 303 squidge with mangled melodies and LFO bleeps. It's more in the vein of Drukqs-era Twin, but also slightly on the proggy side. This is James in full Rick Wakeman/Jean Michel Jarre mode: a master of his machines, an accomplished musician and producer showing off his vast skills and proving that like James Bond, nobody – NOBODY, no, not even you Skrillex – does it better. 

'fz pseudotimestretch+e+3' is a 60-second beat-free interlude – a flanged chord sequence that sounds like Kevin Shields has been at it with his pitch-bending tremolo arm – and the delicate filling in the sandwich that is the 'CIRCLONT' cycle, as next up it's 'CIRCLONT14 [shrymoming mix]', a straight-up 152 bpm slab of funky, fucked-up techno with a freeform Squarepusher breakdown and plenty of noodly jazz-fuckery. There's a nightmarish lullaby child's voice (James's own spawn?) in the middle of it that sounds like it's saying “Nar-sooo-jee” or something. It's about this point that you start to realise that Syro sprawls a bit – it lacks the clear-eyed focus of, say Richard D. James, and is James really indulging himself. It also reminded me a lot of Wisp, the New York IDM boy wonder, who out-Aphexed Aphex in the barren years and ended up recording for Rephlex.

'syro u473t8+e [piezoluminescence mix]' opens with a vocal sample of a woman who could be James's Russian wife (James confirmed to Pitchfork that his wife and kids contribute) saying something in her native tongue before diving into cheesy DMX Krew-style electro funk. A scary image suddenly flashed into my mind of Richard on Top Of The Pops in the late 70s in a flared white suit wigging out on a keytar. It's a bit like 'GX1 Solo' by The Tuss, with cowbell flourishes, a squidgy, funky bassline and an extended outro. 

A synth sound that Piers Martin, my learned colleague in the listening session, nailed as sounding exactly like Macca's 'Wonderful Christmastime' opens 'PAPAT4 [pineal mix]', albeit underpinned by a devastating jungle breakbeat that hits 155 on the bpm scale (the fastest yet!) and myriad bonkers acid lines. It verges into drill territory, and goes so mental it starts to sound like something that Chris Morris might have cooked up - an RDJ take on Rustie's maximalism. The jungle breakbeats of 's950tx16wasr10 [earth portal mix]' reach 163.97bpm, a track that once again references 90s rave music and wouldn't have sounded out of place on Rising High Records. Have we really waited all this time for James to knock out some banging 90s rave tunes? However spectacularly well-constructed and produced they are, it does feel somewhat backward-looking.

Closing track 'aisatsana' is another minimalist piano tune a la 'Avril 14th' and 'Nanou 2'. It's undoubtedly gorgeous – there are birds tweeting in the background and you can hear the keys of the piano being struck and the sustain of every note, giving the impression that it was recorded live in an English country garden. It's plaintive and beautiful and a rare moment of reflection in an album that gets progressively more bonkers as it unfolds. But it feels a bit tacked on, like James is saying, “Remember those melancholy piano tunes I did that everyone loved? Have another one.”

If you want a direct equivalent to Syro, look no further than My Bloody Valentine's m b v. Their long-awaited follow-up to Loveless sounded like, well, the follow-up to Lovelessm b v was an album still rooted in the then-groundbreaking sounds of its predecessor and the era in which it was created (the 90s), right down to the Bukem-apeing Logical Progression-era drum & bass beats on 'wonder 2'. Had m b v been released a few years after Loveless there would have been excitement, but not much more. Instead, the lengthy gestation period increased the band's myth and cacophony of anticipation until whatever finally emerged was always going to be something of a let-down. Kevin Shields, like James, is rightly lauded as an innovator – somebody who completely changed the landscape of the musical sphere they were working in – and subsequently the standards expected of them are higher than for everyone else.

This is the feeling I was left with after listening to Syro. It's brilliant, but it does feel a tad anachronistic (in the context of modern electronic music), and is not the mind-blowing, ass-exploding, game-changing, era-defining sort of record that its creator has previously been synonymous with. Am I wrong to expect that? Probably. Should I just enjoy it for what it is? Of course, and I will – in fact, I can't wait to hear it again (and again and again) and for it to become as familiar to me as the rest of his oeuvre, much of which is, in the words of a YouTube comment under 'Fingerbib', "a part of who I am today". James doesn't owe me, or anyone else, anything – he has already provided me with more moments of magic than any other artist whose music sits amid the multi-GB sprawl of files on my hard drive. I'm glad he's back, and the signs are promising that this won't be a one-off. A phoner with Ruth Saxelby for The Fader revealed that Syro is hopefully just the start of a new period of activity. There is still plenty of time for Lord Aphex to send my jaw to the floor like old times. Until then - COME ON YOU CUNTS!!! LET'S HAVE SOME FUCKING GROOVY APHEX ANALOGUE-ACID-TECHNO-DISCO-ELECTRO!!! 

Sep 4, 2014 11:52pm

cheese n chutney acid

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Sep 5, 2014 1:34am

Any hype-related shortcomings are Richard's own fault.

He's said for years that he has things in the vault from decades ago that would still be innovative and mind-bending even today...

Syro sounds lovely from the description, in any event. Looking forward to picking it up.

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Sep 5, 2014 3:10am

Luckily no one cares what you think.

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John McClane
Sep 5, 2014 3:56am

Time is irrelevant in music. Did somebody cared that Wagner took 5 years before writing Parsifal or any other classical composer? No. It's not about hype, it's about a creator giving something and it becomes timeless throughout history then after.

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Juan M jones
Sep 5, 2014 4:57am

The thing is that some electronic music has gone to a place when innovation was a end in itself. And Richard always wanted to stay "musical" (whatever that means for you, me or him), anyway, to appeal to a open minded pop listener.
Obviously he makes pretty avant garde music in his home, only turning up some of his buchla synths will give "new" results.
Im happy because he remains an outsider, I was fearing a dubstep album to assure the money of the masses.

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Sep 5, 2014 6:08am

The review seems somewhat rushed, but first impressions are important and relevant. I'm not sure why so many internet fans prepared for this album to be an insane game-changer of sorts. Certainly the album cover design and philosophy is evidence that this would almost be the antithesis to what people desire and expect from a hugely hyped album. Personally, even if he just released Metz on its own and no full LP, I would have been eternally happy. That track is mindblowing, even today. What IS exciting is that this is just one LP and James has confirmed he plans to release at least a couple more albums, some EPs and other crazy shit after this. Let's not make him reconsider with weak responses to his majesty's return. :D

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Sep 5, 2014 1:13pm

I don't know, I didn't find m b v to be a let down at all, and the single from this album is also wonderful. So what if it sounds like Aphex? It's not like anybody else sounds like him.

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Sep 5, 2014 1:17pm

An informed and informative review. Appreciated.

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Jonny Chinchen
Sep 5, 2014 1:38pm

This new track isn't innovative, groundbreaking in the beats or structure, but it is the lushest sounding Aphex so far, and the most assuredl emotional ride, it's the most musical (melodic and pleasant on the ears) track of his I think I've heard. SO WELCOME! THANKS Mr Twin!

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Sep 5, 2014 2:40pm

this "music journalist" is an idiot

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Sep 5, 2014 2:42pm

Really looking forward to this and Minipops is great. Very informative review, you can compete with the music flip to influence built x

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Sep 5, 2014 4:51pm

i want to hear this. and i think i will like it. but all the descriptions ive read make it sound like its stuck in 97. breaks? i had hoped he would have put them to bed and used something new instead. give rustie and the new warp kids some real MODERN competition. oh well.

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John McClane
Sep 5, 2014 5:13pm

You seem to misled the business portion of music with the creation.

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neil hynes
Sep 6, 2014 12:25am

really well written man, thanks a lot.

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Daveid P
Sep 6, 2014 1:43pm

ass exploding...heheh..

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Sep 6, 2014 7:46pm

Stick didgeridoo on, Selected Ambient Works, and just marvel that these fuckers are over 20 years old, and like many, a lot of the Aphex oeuvre is a part of what we are, I have fond memories of hearing didgeridoo at a New Year's Eve party in Sheffield in a climbing club, a cave like arena, dawn approaching, the DJ drops this, and whoosh..... RDJ doesn't have to prove anything to me. Classic, looking forward to looking back and forward with his new album. Bring it on!

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Sep 6, 2014 11:04pm

This is for his long time listeners

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Sep 8, 2014 2:41am


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Sep 8, 2014 3:33am

Good review and prelim recap, however much I told myself not to read it and just listen. I also feel what you and others have said about his past work -- being immediately taken/personally involved with the various incarnations as they came throughout the years, and pretty much sold form the get-go.
In reading various reports about this latest release though, I'm a bit surprised on how Drukqs is often cited as a disappointment of sorts. In some ways -- although it was a slower burn -- that one seems to have been the best at creating a definitive mood (that I'll always associate with post-9/11 however unintentional on his part) and a more seamless merging of all the output he'd created to that point.
And as far as the ass-exploding, I distinctly remember taking off my headphones after that 30-second hypersonic strobe towards the end of St. Michael's Mount and looking around wishing there was someone else who had heard what the F just happened. An un-resolvable proposition, but that may be his most epic track ever.

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Sep 8, 2014 3:13pm

I actually think it's a great to have an album that just focuses on the fundamentals instead of having to be constantly chasing defying boundaries etc.

I guess that's just happened to me with age (i'm 25 now, feel old lol), and just in the last year I've found I don't take music nearly as seriously as I did before. So I'm not always expecting the new one hit wonder or the 'new sound' that will blow everyone away. Sometimes I prefer just sitting back and listening to a good tune. Sometimes bring it back to the fundamentals is the way to go! haha. It's probably the perfect timing for me to be honest though to have an album like this, and also since I'm a massive fan of The Tuss, and I have recently also been loving James' random mindless / bonkers break tracks like 'Mangle' etc, and other similar music like Steinvord etc. So all in all, judging by your review, I think it's going to be an album I really appreciate.

Excellent review by the way. Very well written, and you did it tasteful without sounding like a pompous jerk (like so many other music journalists do). I also couldn't help but notice a lot of the track names appear to have instrument names in them. API, S950, Circlon (reference to Cirklon), Eve (reminds me of a reference to Eventide Or maybe I'm just seeing things?

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Sep 8, 2014 5:54pm

If Syro is, as you say, "far too idiosyncratic and complex to have mass appeal", then it seems Aphex Twin has delivered the "game-changing album of mutant pop music" you were hoping for. Were you thinking he was going to make something with mass appeal?

I'm just gonna relax and enjoy it the way I have EVERY SINGLE THING the Aphex has put out. I mean that. I've enjoyed all of it, even the annoying stuff. It tickles my ears.

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Sep 9, 2014 8:09am

I love aphex twin! The first time I heard minipops I ejaculated. Iv'e always wanted something new from aphex but with the same sounds that he used under AFX/The Tuss, and if this whole album is based on that sound it's gonna be GREATTTT!!!!!!

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simon wallker
Sep 9, 2014 8:13am

I was at the listening part and I have to say its an amazing album but so much detail is hard to take in with one listen.
Very beautiful.
He obviously can make whatever style he chooses.
IF he goes obviously experimental then most people would be like yuk!
I think its very different for him, it's more subtle so the innovation is in the composition and production, sounds like nothing else, so good to hear electronic music produced on all that lush hardware, lucky bugger, I predict his most successful album

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Sep 19, 2014 9:43am

enjoying my first listen right now. it does have a very nostalgic vibe so far, but i love that cause i'm still living in 1992 :)

it's very melodic, tuneful even. lots of nice harmonies and very funky. I'm about half way through and I'm loving it so far, but i'm surprised i'm hearing so many chords that sound nice. he's definitely chilled out. i'm just glad he hasn't gone all dubstep that would have been terrible, bit of course he wouldn't he's way to genius for that

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Sep 19, 2014 12:22pm

On my n'th listen and can't decide if the fact it sounds so much like I'd expect an Aphex Twin album to sound is a good or bad thing post the long wait and if that's my problem, not his, anyway? There's nothing bad on the album at all but less that made me sit up and take notice on first spin as I'd hoped. Again, that could well be more about my expectations than his actual delivery?

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Sep 22, 2014 12:05pm

Good review. I agree. Just had a first listen to Syro. First impressions are..funky, electro, fat beats. 80s. second track had me rushing. Got a little bit bored after that. I need to listen on a proper hi fi. I had it on ipod with shitty headphones and the bass was distorted. It's got some juicy bass.

Probably not an album I will listen to much but then I'm not into electronic music these days!! I bought it because I've been following R James since Selected Ambient Works in early 90s. Was hoping for something know..something mind bending and challenging. Still...not heard whole album yet...and under different circumstances I might like it more.

I'll go back to my Bonnie Prince Billy now :)

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Sep 23, 2014 11:31am

The most on-point review I've read, and one stripped of sycophancy and fandom, so cheers for that, Joe.

Taken alone, SYRO is maybe a 4/5 record, stuffed with ingenuity. But when you stack it next to the rest of RDJ's peerless catalogue… more like 2.5/5, and it really shouldn't be reviewed as a NEW album, because it isn't.

There's not a single 'come on you c**ts!' stunning moment in there. The overtly rave-tinged tracks work best for me: 180db & PAPAT4. Aisatsana is lovely but only half as beguiling as Avril 14 or Nannou, say.

Put it another way: Drukqs, which didn't receive rave reviews, is clearly better than SYRO.

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hans altena
Sep 28, 2014 2:17pm

Though I wasn't waiting for anything mindbendingly new, and had an instant liking for the specific Aphex Twin sound that arose when I put the album on (which by the way is annoyingly split into three splices of vinyl that could easily have been two, so that after about nine minutes or so you have to rise up again and change the side, the opposite of bliss), I surely miss something. It is that magic, the ethereal atmosphere, as if you're spiritually transported into deep space. The characteristic effects are there, the crazy grooves, but it's just happy go trippy. Nothing wrong with that for those that are into that, but not the kind of Aphex Twin experience I always had and search for... A good record, but I am going to give it away as a present...

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Sep 29, 2014 10:19am

Just listened from start to finish —
What a piece of crap, anaemic in production and
re -treading trodden ideas underfoot. Surely we
can expect some critical appraisal of the music on
the disc instead of all the hullaballoo around it.

Press seem either too ignorant of music production,
or supine to state the obvious. That the entire album
was made on a portable midi sequencer, and Richard
couldn't even be arsed to finish tracks.

A completely forgettable effort from somebody that
seems to have fallen the fuck off. Good luck with the
kids, cause there's no passion or introspection to be
had here. Will people be listening to this in 6 -months
time? Fuck no, case of emperor's new clothes.

[ 2/ 10 ]

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Oct 3, 2014 8:21am

This article is spot on.. hate to say it but I'm disappointed in Syro. I was expecting groundbreaking work but then its just a collection of some of his old music sitting on his laptop/computer. Guess he had to clean up some hard-disk space ;) If you make a comeback after 13 years then it should be mind blowing or don't make a comeback... simple ... Or do it under a pseudonym.

Track two (XMAS_EVET 10), which everyone is raving about, still uses the James Brown sample... like seriously? The world has seriously moved on in those 13 years and this album is quite dated.

I hear far better music on Soundcloud.

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