Aphex Twin’s Collapse EP Reviewed From The Gwennap Pit

John Doran was on his way to the Gwennap Pit in Cornwall when he received the new Aphex Twin EP by email. But is the outdoor Methodist amphitheatre and "early ancestor of the speaker cone" an ideal place to enjoy Richard D. James' latest?

Apparently there are 18 Cornish places namechecked in the work of Richard D James. I took this figure from the handy and very personal (albeit sniffy about popular and mainstream culture) book Walking The Music Of Aphex Twin by George Butterworth, which sets out to look at the idea of his music being the product or representative of these particular places. I’d been intending to visit the Logan Rock for about two decades after becoming obsessed with the closing track on the Richard D. James Album and the very strange story behind the title but didn’t really formulate any kind of firm plan to trawl round Cornwall with an AFX checklist until Laura Snapes wrote an essay entitled The Wheal Thing: Aphex Twin’s Alternative Cornish Language for this very site a few years ago. So it was last week during a short family break in Kernow that I finally found myself attempting to tick off as many of the 18 places as I could while also fitting in a day out at the Eden Project, body boarding on Porth Beach and the many amusement arcades of Newquay. In a fit of synchronicity that I couldn’t ignore however, I got sent an advance copy of the Collapse EP by WARP while I was en route to my first Aphex Twin location. It seemed only logical then that I should listen to the release and write about it from the comfort of the “19th hole” – the Gwennap Pit, given that was where I was headed when the email arrived in my inbox.

I say 19th hole of course because the Gwennap Pit is where a youngish James and pal Luke Vibert were interviewed by John Peel in 1999 for his Sound Of The Suburbs TV programme and is not actually directly mentioned in any Aphex release. A computerised simulacra of the manmade, excavation featured in the recent Weirdcore video for the ‘T69 Collapse’ track, and the descending, concentric collapse pattern of the pit was used elsewhere in the video, on the artwork for the EP and in the international teaser campaign; all to great effect. George Butterworth refers to it, excellently, as an early ancestor of the speaker cone. It may not have been mentioned in any song title but as Laura Snapes points out: "In February 1993, [Richard D.] James released Analogue Bubblebath 3 through Rephlex. It came packaged in a brown paper bag containing a poster of Cornwall and an information sheet of places of natural interest, showcasing the label’s idiosyncratic sense of humour. Gwennap Pit, where Peel had interviewed Aphex, was described as ‘an absolutely extraordinary location, renowned all over the Lanner area for its fabulous acoustics,’ and also ‘a great place for a swift game of tig.’"

The pit is actually a place of worship so perhaps those seeking an even-handed, critically cool review of Collapse should either look elsewhere or wait until my fine derriere is back on its wooden office chair in London N1 in a few days time. The Cornish landmark is also clearly a heterotopia – literally an ‘other place’, a world within a world, mirroring what is outside in a disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory or transforming way – so I would imagine that this would also cloud my review. Should music writers be forced to ply their trade from locations that are defiantly non-other? From locales that are the antithesis of the disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory or transforming? Ensconced in a space designed to keep their horizons flat and close and their adrenaline from surging? Written in a place that is entirely as it seems? Not a bit of it! I hereby found the School Of The Heterotopic Review. All copy shall be filed from a submarine stationed under the ice shelf; from a maximum security prison; from the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid Of Giza; from the large Victorian glass houses at Kew Gardens. Or from the damp grass on the lowest tier of the Gwennap Pit on a cloudy late August morning. (Maybe when I get home, also from inside the Michael Faraday Monument in Elephant And Castle.)

Situated in Busveal, a small satellite village of Redruth, the generously signposted Gwennap Pit is the site of 18 John Wesley sermons held between 1762 and 1789. If it looks far too curious and rarified an excavation to deserve the nomenclature of ‘pit’, this is due to posthumous landscaping. The unnatural hollow was initially the site of subsidence from a large tin mine and it became a rough and ready outdoor temple entirely because of Methodist practicality rather than grand design. John Wesley’s inaugural sermon from the man made dingle took place because the wind was too high for him to be heard in his intended location of Carharrack. His diary entry for September 6th, 1762 reads: “I stood on one side of this ampitheatre [SIC] towards the top and with people beneath on all sides, I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see….hear the things that ye hear”, adding: “I shall scarce see a larger congregation til we meet in heaven.”

It was local miners who wrought its peculiar beauty after the death of Wesley as a kind of memorial to him but also as a monument to the success of their industry. They formalised the pit with concentric tiers in 1806; the structure measuring 16 feet deep and 360 feet in circumference. They also erected a stone altar with three large pieces of rock (it’s where the record decks go according to Richard D James in the Sound Of The Suburbs documentary). There are no record decks there today so I’m listening to the five track EP on my phone. If you walk the circumference of each tier the distance adds up to exactly one mile and children who complete the full circuit receive a certificate from the nearby visitor’s centre. Well, they would if it were open. Unfortunately a burst water main earlier in the year and a lack of funds for repair mean it’s now closed for the time being. The site is absolutely spotless. Someone clearly comes down here regularly to clean up and cut the grass. Out front there is a community information board with an advert for a nearby kennels; the local Red Cross who have posted a notice about loneliness; and a poster from the Cornwall and Scilly Drug & Alcohol Team about the suspected ecstasy related death of a 14-year-old girl and the hospitalisation of two 13-year-old girls and a 15-year-old boy in July.

The short walk to the lip is beautiful and decorated with Methodist mosaics (JW in Sunday best caught full flow!) and framed, thund’rous Victorian engravings of the pit. For some daft reason I’m expecting to see a full congregation of thousands gathered in contemplation but it’s empty as we walk over the threshold and it remains that way for the couple of hours we spend there. (The pit is still occasionally used for church services, weddings and concerts but I get the feeling that it doesn’t happen too often.)

The actual Gwennap Pit is twelve layers deep not seven like in the video. (Is this a reference to the elusive seventh Aphex Twin album that may be on the way or merely Dante’s Inferno?) Just as it descends in stages, it has been through several symbolic stages of development itself. First it was created by industrial accident, then it became an organic place of worship, then symbol of pride, success and wealth but now a partially deserted relic of a bygone age… but is that it? (Much is made of how nearby Redruth and Camborne are some of the poorest places in the country but in 1840 Gwennap was the richest mineralised area in the world and known internationally as the Copper Kingdom.) It may appear to be a bit of an oddity, a place for bored local kids to hang out or for the odd Aphex nutter to have their photo taken in – a bit of an aberration – but just under the surface of its rich, healthy turf mushrooms grow, connecting it to the mycelium network. So there is a possible future for the Gwennap Pit just not the one people are looking for perhaps.

The roots of this EP’s lead track are in the rave. You will no doubt have recognised that ‘T69 Collapse’, with its 150 time changes, is quite a radically unweildy beast to keep on the tracks but one of the several strategies Richard D James uses is the deployment of satisfyingly fat basslines, the track having been roadtested in his live set prior to release. In fact the whole EP rolls along on superb bass, the Aphex Twin of this EP, Orphaned Deejay Selek and Syro being the funkiest incarnations to date. For what it’s worth I think this is the best thing he’s done since Druqks with the notable exception of the Soundcloud Dump which is, as you know, something else entirely. Yes, better than anything by The Tuss and better than any individual Analord EP.

However second track ‘1st 44’ is the easiest to accuse of being Aphex Twin by numbers and is the slowest to reveal its own intrinsic worth, which it only does begrudgingly. It arrives on mournful Angelo Badalamenti string pads before expanding into tart synthesized arpegios all burnished up with reverb over skittering D&B drums and muscular, boinging acid (running, confusingly, at a different tempo to everything else). Much more immediate (and better) is ‘MT1 T29r2’ which opens on pads that could have come straight from the Richard D. James Album before exploding into high contrast busts of syncopated handclaps, pointilist clusters of synthetic wood block perc and bombastic tom rolls. Hyped up, Provigil-enlivened bass runs, nestle up to hand wound music box melodies then big room reverb kicks and submariner sonar beeps. Briefly, all too tantalisingly, the spirit of Alice Coltrane breezes through his machines, gently brushing past the digital simulacra of a harp. Like with ‘T69 Collapse’ a head altering transformation has occurred and you’re being asked to consider the other side of a mirror.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that these days I go into first listens of all electronic tracks searching out footwork influence that’s making me hear it here. ‘abundance10edit (2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909)’ and ‘1st 44’ seem to acknowledge this form – albeit briefly. I wonder if I’d approached the soundcloud dump in the same manner how many of those tracks I would have heard the ghost imprint of juke. “Give me your hand my friend and I will lead you to the land of abundance, joy and happiness”, intones a childlike narrator on ‘abundance’. You’ve persuaded me; where do I sign?

Probably the most futuristic heavy shit on the EP is the bonus track ‘pthex’ which mashes up decimated trap beats, distorted, scratched in dancehall vocals and crystalline coldwave synths, all with some signature Aphex acid. Also the attention to delay and echo on the drum programming which enlivened sections of Druqks, leaving reverb trails left, right and centre; not to mention what sounds like a shaken aerosol can being used as percussion. What we have here, in total, is neither something entirely without precedent (and I’ve already spent enough time outlining why I think this is an unreasonable desire) but neither is it the same old same old.

I agree that the pit actually does have "fantastic acoustics" and my own listening pleasure was heightened subtly by catching the faintest neighing from nearby horses; at one point the humming of a borderline aggressive bee that landed on my head; the cawing of many crows; the occasional song of many smaller but unidentified birds and the engine noise of two or three distant light aircraft, caught in the hollow as if I were lying inside a grass sound mirror. The experience was heightened extensively by lying on my back on the lowest tier of the Gwennap Pit and looking up at the sky while my seven year old completed the combination mile of 12 rings above me (for which he is now demanding a chocolate-based substitute for his lack of completion certificate). I highly recommend both the EP (it comes out on WARP on September 14) and visiting the Gwennap Pit (you can get to it easily by taking the A3047 Scorrier exit from the A30 and if you go early enough you’ll also be able to fit in St Michael’s Mount and the Logan Rock before tea time).

George Butterworth’s Walking The Music Of Aphex Twin is available from Jam Records, Falmouth or can be ordered directly from the author: gisaacb@gmail.com

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