Accept The Unknowable: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 Revisited

30 years on, Darran Anderson revisits Aphex Twin’s first volume of ambient works, and finds an album of musical genius, but also a disarming innocence

One of the most interesting aspects of the vampire myth is the idea of invitation. It’s there in Let the Right One In. It’s there, further back, in Count Dracula’s entreaty to Jonathan Harker, “My Friend ¬– Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you…” And further again, in 16th century theologian Library Leo Allatius’ De Graecorum hodie quorundam opinationibus where those who respond to the undead’s call at the door face damnation. Part of the ongoing attraction of the vampire myth is that Faustian element of desire and complicity. Who would turn down immortality when all it costs is the price of your soul? In other words, who would turn away from fame. If the world of contemporary celebrity teaches us anything, it’s what happens when we invite the vampire in or accept its summoning. Of course, it is incumbent on artists to court fame in order to be able to survive and sustain their work. The clever ones, however, construct a persona to hide behind in order not to be drained dry, so that the vampire seeks them out but instead finds and feasts upon a decoy.

Outside the unedifying spectacle of the superstar DJ, there has tended to be a quiet subversive attitude towards identity in electronic music. Anonymity is a recurring trait – mystery white labels, faceless acts, cryptic titles, album covers with inexplicable logos, songs with minimal lyrics or none at all. There are many reasons for this – pseudonyms offer creative freedom and the possibility of reinvention, it covered tracks in an age of guerrilla sampling, it encouraged in-group elitism etc – but the result is a sort of a mythology of no mythology. Interest in records, and the musicians behind them, would grow in proportion to how inscrutable they were. And the greater the vacuum, the more speculation would flood in to try and fill it. This would become systemised with the use of masks (Daft Punk, Deadmau5, SBTRKT etc) but the attraction of anonymity was there from the beginning.

It’s understandable why. For one thing, hiding behind a disguise was a smart move visually in a musical form dominated by crate-digging, synth-noodling nerds (I say this as one). In a deeper sense, it was a rejection of the traditional paths of celebrity, for instance the models of Oscar Wilde, Frank Sinatra, Evel Knievel, Marilyn Monroe and so on, all of which bore significant even ruinous costs. Instead of exposure, electronic artists would utilise hearsay, myth and elusiveness. If electronic musicians have forerunners in terms of fame, it’s in strange, puzzling jigsaw figures like B. Traven or incognito characters like D.B. Cooper who barely seem to have existed at all.

Many stories orbit Aphex Twin. Some are real, some are fictional, many are indistinguishable between the two. Some were born on message boards that seem like the Dead Sea Scrolls now, and evolved through years of hearsay. Some were invented and spread by Richard D. James himself. The name Aphex Twin refers to an older brother who shared his name and died at birth. The artist lived inside the Faraday Cage in Elephant And Castle. He owns a tank and a submarine. He composes music via lucid dreaming. He recorded a piece of music for Virgin Airlines that was rejected because it sounded like an unfolding disaster. He used to drop water balloons onto the queue for Ministry of Sound. He released the underrated Drukqs after leaving an MP3 with 282 unreleased tracks on a plane. Paid to remix Nine Inch Nails, he handed them an old track of his without bothering to listen to either. Pursued by Madonna, he wrote her a “weird acid song” where she would “growl like a piglet”. He earned money to make his first tunes from working in Cornish mines, alongside naked miners because of the heat – “I was well spun out” he recalled. He incorporated food blenders and sandpaper into his DJ sets. He made hit singles that few know are his work. Dozens of legends exist. The genius of this approach is that Richard D. James managed to achieve prominence while keeping the vampire as far as possible from his door. To pull it off, he created Aphex Twin to take his place, but it went further than just bait. One look at his gleefully grotesque promotional photographs or watching the Chris Cunningham-directed videos from the height of his fame, and it’s clear James had created his own vampire, one borne from all the disdain and humour he felt towards the industry.

One of the stories we can be fairly certain is true about Richard D. James, because others told it about him, is that he didn’t want to be famous and had to be coerced into releasing his first EP. Had he been left to his own devices, he’d have been happy to circulate his tapes by hand as bootlegs, as he’d done first at school and then at raves in his native Cornwall. The wider world may never have known about his music. Instead, while tripping after a DJ set, he was persuaded to sign a contract. The result was the Analogue Bubblebath EP, which instantly made waves in the scene. It was the album that followed however that would make his name.

For all its landmark status now, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 runs counter to the conventional grandiosity of a classic album. Rather than being a carefully plotted epic, it’s a work built around contingency, sculpted down from countless tunes any of which could have made it, and seemingly thrown together with a devil-may-care attitude including asking his mates to choose. It’s an incredibly lo-fi album too, a work of DIY bedroom in the middle of nowhere alchemy recorded onto cassettes, which adds both a grain and a distance to the recordings, like it is from another time, which it is. The dates suggest that some of the tracks were created by a fourteen-year-old savant messing around on disassembled and reassembled machinery and homemade programs on 8-bit computers, which James acknowledged to The Face in 2001, “I always wanted to make my music sound like a game. A danceable version of a Spectrum game. I’m almost there, I think.” Its these factors that help make it feel as radical a proposition as it is. He created entire worlds out of things others dismissed or discarded.

In the process, Richard D. James proved, if it was ever in doubt, that dance music could be as atmospheric and ‘deep’ as ambient without sacrificing any of the excitement. He also did ambient an inestimable favour by reminding listeners that it didn’t have to just be muzak, chill-out or new age. Certainly, spas, galleries and comedowns deserve their own soundtracks but there were other possibilities. These are ambient works, but they as much influenced by rave culture as by Eno; among the first sounds you hear on the album are what sounds like hi-hats from an 808 and the album has many dance dynamics throughout. This is an ambient music that is active rather passive. It’s exploratory within the boundaries of each track. In comparison to the rest of James’ discography, it’s much more minimalist and focused on atmosphere, and far less frenetic; a stylistic decision, one imagines, but also due to the limitations of the tech he was using. On later albums, he’d have a song like ‘#3 (Rhubarb)’ or ‘Avril 14th’ as a kind of blissful glade surrounded by dark woods full of terrors and transformations. This album feels like a succession of spaces, each different to the one before. He hasn’t yet reached the ingenious fractal explosions, the collapsing clockwork sculptures of noise, the sheer fuckery of later years. Instead, we find in Selected Ambient Works 85-92 a series of interiors. Some are like vast echoing cathedrals. Others are like tiny immaculate terrarium worlds. Others are like courtyards under twilight skies.

As you can see, they are difficult soundscapes to describe, which brings us to one of Richard D. James most fascinating and disruptive qualities. A brief, and I hope forgivable, digression is required to outline this. Around twenty years ago, I was in touch with the Scottish poet Tom Leonard, brilliant, irascible and sadly missed. At one point, I mentioned a song by a band that I was into at the time, long since forgotten, and he replied, to the effect, ‘You’ll find as you get older that you drift away from all that, especially when you discover that you’re allowed to listen to classical music’. At the time, I was intent on having lyrics tattooed all over my body and shrugged off his comment as conservative, but it became more true, and more of a gift, with each passing year. Once life has battered you around the head for long enough, you find yourself desiring music as a form of space rather than bound by the restraints of someone else’s words. In other words, you reach the limits of language and you realise music goes far beyond that.

There is a logocentric quality to pop, rock, hip-hop, folk and so on that is a source of wonders but also effectively tethers songs. Electronic music, like classical, exists in a territory beyond narrative or explanation. It is its own language, its own world in and of itself. Electronic artists are right to defend this expansiveness, to resist its diminishment or containment. Whether “translation is always treason”, as the art critic Okakura Kakuzō put it, is debatable but the animus Aphex Twin and others have shown towards music journalists is in part related to the fact that we struggle to be competent translators.

Escaping language is a challenge though. We cling to words, just as they cling to us. Even when letting the mind wander in the music, music that may well have had no working title, you find yourself searching the song names for clues to their meaning, like trying to ground a soaring bird with a harpoon. Aphex Twin’s attempts to circumvent this tendency in the second Selected Ambient Works collection failed when fans added their own titles. Equally though, James is a trickster and seems to enjoy creating red herrings and wild goose chases. As his discography continued, names appeared like glitches, codes, misspelled almost-words. On Selected Ambient Works 85-92, there is at least a sense of materiality that matches the music and the text. Many come from the lexicons of electronics and science, which provides a futuristic, or now retrofuturistic, feel – ‘Xtal’, ‘Pulsewidth’, ‘Schtootkey’, ‘Green Calx’. Others belong to ancient history – ‘Ptolemy’, ‘Heliosphan’, ‘Delphium’, ‘Ageispolis’, ‘Actium’. You can pursue each trail that James has scattered through the maze and encounter metallic oxides and Spartan kings, ancient sea battles and oscillators, semiconductor diodes and oracles. Reading these titles in the early nineties, before Google or Wikipedia, was baffling and that was the point. James was in the business of creating enigmas.

If language leads us astray, there’s still the temptation to interpret the record spatially. It’s something Richard D. James would engage in himself with the record’s follow-up, likening it to “standing in a power station on acid”. Surroundings matter. There’s a compelling argument to be made that a huge amount of innovative music, indeed culture, comes from supposedly peripheral places; boredom being the true mother of invention. And Aphex Twin is a crucial example, admitting on many occasions to being driven to creating music by the nothingness all around him growing up in Cornwall. There is something about the awe of vast inhospitable skies and seas that invites an inward turn. Though light on entertainment, Cornwall is of course not a place of nothingness at all and its possible to hear the influence of the landscape of promontories and coves, tors and flooded quarries in his music. Maybe it’s the overactive imagination of a romantic listener. It’s something James gently took the piss out of accompanying John Peel and Luke Vibert to Gwennap Pit, an amphitheatre/depression with excellent acoustics where John Wesley had preached, pointing to what looks like a stone altar, “That’s where they put the decks”.

The point is that the music of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is not a sign for something else but rather it is itself. For all the thoughts and locations it stirs in the imagination or memory, it is non-representational. There is no understanding to be had other than to go and inhabit it, accept the unknowable, lose yourself, silence the analytical voice in your head, surrender to the numinous. All else, Aphex Twin suggests, is dancing about architecture. Yet such an activity has its charms and dance we must.

The album starts on an ethereal high with the misty shoegazey dance of ‘Xtal’ while ‘Tha’ continues the gothic blue-hour atmosphere; the ping-pong pulse and train station chatter having an enchanted stuck in a time loop limbo quality. ‘Pulsewidth’, ‘Ptolemy’, ‘Ageispolis’ and ‘Delphium’ are closest to other dance tunes of the time, but the rave tape patina makes them feel like semi-precious found artefacts now. ‘Ageispolis’ is the catchiest but they all have the feel of a hypnotist testing how deeply entranced the volunteer is, having been lulled in by different ambient washes of synths, whether tropical or crystalline. ‘Green Calx’ is the closest he comes to breaking the spell, the earliest hint of the contrary and fun ‘Come on you cunt, let’s have some Aphex acid!’ persona to come, with its squelches and ED-209 samples. Yet the dream-state is maintained throughout what is still and always will be an astonishing idiosyncratic album, even if there are detours into semi-nightmare noir moments like ‘Hedphelym’. ‘Green Calx’ did, however, give me a flashback to seeing Aphex Twin perform many years ago and how the gormless merrily gurning faces on the dancefloor turned to genuine terror due to the industrial gabber and Cadbury’s Flake music (the latter may be a false PTSD-induced memory) James kept dropping into his set. What I took as cynicism at the time, I see now as, perhaps, a puckish playfulness and a resistance to expectation. What I hear in Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a disarming innocence.

We all know what followed and the colossal presence that Aphex Twin had from a position still somewhere out on the periphery. Between data dumps of very fine music, he is quiet now and lives a private life. In that respect at least, nothing much has changed. The creature he created did its job, it trolled hard, and fended off the vampiric aspects of fame. It was grotesque because the world is grotesque. It ate souls in order that his remained uneaten. It actively courted public disgust because James knew, from the start, adulation was a charade and a trap. "I’m just some irritating, lying, ginger kid from Cornwall who should have been locked up in some youth detention centre” he once told The Guardian, “I just managed to escape and blag it into music." Now, he gets to make music, incidental of whether it has listeners or not. James is back where he began. Maybe he never really left in spirit. Maybe the journey is something he made the rest of us go through. It’s this, and the musical genius displayed throughout this album, that makes the tale of Richard D. James a rare and beautiful victory.

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