The Lead Review: John Doran On AFX’s Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006 – 2008

He was looking for a horse, and then he found a horse, and heaven knows John Doran is happy now that there's a new AFX EP out

England’s iron core rings out to the pulse of AFX. The music Richard D. James makes is as old as the hills. Actually, scratch that, it’s much, much older. When England’s hills have slid into the sea; when England’s mountains have been reduced to mounds of igneous flakes and sand and are blown away to the corners of the Earth; when England is revealed to be nothing more than 81,000 square miles of bare iron, glowing obscenely hot under the raging summer sun. The pulse of Throbbing Gristle, the Ragga Twins, William Blake, The Fall, Godflesh, CTV, Cabaret Voltaire, Napalm Death, Philip Larkin, Earl Brutus, PJ Harvey, Dizzee Rascal, Daphne Oram, Black Sabbath and the Aphex Twin will sound as clear and loud as a fog horn across still waters on a calm day.

This music has always been with us. We should be celebrating its existence, not wishing it away due to attention deficit disorder.

It might sound naive, but when ‘Serge Fenix Rendered 2’ rose unexpectedly a month ago – and I’d gotten over the initial rush of marching round Hackney to it, feeling like Mek-Quake, scooping up men, women and children into my gurning maw, shouting, "Big jobs!" between mouthfuls of flesh and bone – I was mildly dismayed to hear the yawns of boredom it seemed to provoke in some quarters.

But how ridiculous and banal to ask for a new "trick" when this sound was discovered; unearthed, not forged or designed.

Imaginary Pedant #1 speaks up: I was an undergraduate in 1992 when Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92 was released and then became a keen supporter of the idea of IDM or Intelligent Dance Music. More than any other act – including Autechre – Aphex Twin made it a dizzying thrill to be a music fan. To hear electronic music evolving and mutating on a weekly basis was a privilege. To hear a key artist of this era now doing essentially the same thing well over two decades later is nothing short of a betrayal.

Imaginary Pedant #2 speaks up: I was a partisan raver in 1992 and Richard D. James was an important part of the cultural fabric that made me believe that we could affect serious change in society rebuilding from the foundation of our culture upwards. But our utopian plan failed to make any headway just as AFX now fails to break radical new ground. I can’t help but be disappointed with this new EP.

Imaginary Pedant #3 speaks up: I was born in 1992 and spend a lot of time on the internet. I downloaded a torrent of every track Richard D James has ever recorded, after seeing the ‘Come To Daddy’ video on YouTube and listened to all of them in order. I even listened to SAW 85-92, Windowlicker and I Care Because You Do twice and can quite categorically state that with this new EP, AFX has released his Tin Machine II. He has jumped the shark. He is worse than David Guetta and Fat Boy Slim combined and should be taken outside and shot without blindfold or cigarette immediately for his crimes against modernism. tbh I only got one track into it and had to stop. tr; dl. [Too repetitive; didn’t listen] (ง’-‘)ง (¬‿¬)

The idea that art is like a shark which needs to keep on moving forward or die is received wisdom worth questioning. Sure, for a rock band cutting their teeth on AC/DC covers, progress is arguably a good idea, but how much does this apply to those few who have imagined, wrought, maintained and defended a unique sonic aesthetic? I’m not so sure. I’d actually suggest that in this case it’s often the constant reinvention not the stasis that kills the shark. Just ask Damien Hirst.

Imaginary Taxi Driver #1 speaks up: Oi Kazimir mate! You’ve ballsed it up bruv. 1818’s ‘White On White’ doesn’t really show any tangible progression from the suprematist masterpiece ‘Black Square’. You mug!

Imaginary Taxi Driver #2 speaks up: Oi Mark, you plank! The Rothko Chapel doesn’t show any noteworthy signs of technical innovation since the Seagram commissions. You’re treading water, you clown – sort it!

There is actually a lot to be said for the artist who has created and then maintained a unique vision, if you take genius to be shorthand for clarity of vision and persistence (especially in the face of ridicule, attack or obscurity) as I do. I don’t actually believe in the concept of genius but if I did, Aphex Twin would be among the first I’d personally consider for contention. My own personal system for judging these things works like this – if anyone can manage eight years or more of envelope pushing, innovation or curation of a truly individual sound, then they are an indefatigable top tier artist and I will pay them the respect of spending at least two or three days living with their latest release before even starting to form an opinion on it. It kind of staggers me just how many Davids there are out there in search of Goliaths to knock down. I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’re David Bowie; if you’re James Brown; if you’re Prince; if you’re Slayer; if you’re Miles Davis; if you’re Alice Coltrane and, yeah, if you’re Richard D. James, you don’t get a free pass you simply get the respect you’ve earned.

But to what extent is James standing still anyway? When thinking about Aphex Twin and progress, we should ideally look at it from several perspectives. If we’re considering Richard D. James then we need to take an inclusive look at his entire cultural output in different time frames. Even if we choose to ignore Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 (regardless of its quality), is it reasonable to assume that his bleeding edge instincts should necessarily be satisfied in the studio? I’d say a lot of this pioneering spirit is pushed into his DJ sets – in terms of visuals and sound engineering as well as the actual process of mixing. I see him primarily as a DJ – he’s consistently been in my top five for the last 20 years – and many others do as well. Perhaps, going by the title of this EP, it’s not unreasonable to argue that he does himself. The binary that suggests that a groundbreaking artist is either pro-actively creating a new progressive sub-genre of music or creatively bankrupt, is particularly pernicious and needs dismantling forthwith. Anyone who saw the Aphex Twin performing live at the Barbican three years ago with the Morton-Feldman-in-the-21st-century-experiment of the Remote Orchestra and a radio controlled baby grand piano swinging on a giant pendulum above the heads of the audience – would be forced to concede that there is no way he is out of fresh ideas.

But of course we’re not discussing Richard D. James as an artist, we’re looking at his second most popular alias, AFX. And this is where the most frustrating misunderstanding of all comes into play. Initially it was hard to see the output of AFX as being anything that radically different to that of the Aphex Twin; in fact it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that this title just allowed the industrious RDJ to release more music. The (excellent) Analogue Bubblebath series of EPs showcased a bewildering range of styles from industrial techno to drum and bass via tape experiments, acid house, power electronics, gabba and ambient but for the last decade AFX’s output can just about be safely reduced to one handy word: acid.

We’re not talking acid house per se, but a synthesis of process, aesthetic and hardware that has its genesis in the formative experience of RDJ hearing acid house while on (the drug) acid. This is the singular experience of (come on you cunts, let’s have some) AFX acid. It would be a mistake to think this is straight up retro – if you want to hear some honourable (and banging) old school acid house, Chris Moss releases the very satisfying but old school Righteous Acid Beats this month and there’s a lot of battle recreationist style acid available under the hardware house tag not to mention attempts at innovation that range from Blawan style brilliance to stuff that really doesn’t warrant a name check. AFX, however, exists in a different space and has done since the start of the Analord series in 2005.

‘Serge Fenix Rendered 2’ sounds good through my big speakers and on bins alike. What are the naysayers not hearing? Perhaps it’s the synths. The synths which sound like biting into an orange only to discover it’s a lemon. The synths that sound like breaking a three week sugar fast by cramming as many Opal Fruits into your mouth as you can. The synths that sound like that tremulous rush that comes half an hour before you realise that the drugs are quite weak and it’s not going to go off this time. ‘DMX Acid Test’ is a hectic 303 workout with amphetamine psychosis, like an audio .gif of fractal complexity, endlessly disappearing into the vanishing point. This segues nicely into the lovely, immersive acid bath of ‘Oberheim Blacet1b’ with its heavily reverbed drum samples and jokey deployment of the ‘Amen break’ right at the coda. ‘Bonus EMT Beats’ is more of an exercise in drum processing effects and one for the deep listeners. Anyone who’s been watching RDJ DJing over recent years will recognise the hammering railroad techno of ‘Simple Slamming B 2’ with its use of jazzy breaks and double speed electro P-Funk bassline standing in stark contrast to its austere, dark side synths. Of course, what I said above about AFX making music which is produced along rigidly maintained boundaries is actually more of a rule of thumb than an immutable law of physics; ‘Midi Pipe1c Sds3time Cube/Klonedrm’ sounds more like an AFX/computer controlled instrument mash up, than a pure shot of acid. The EP ends on a supremely funky one two with ‘NEOTEKT72’ and ‘R8m Neotek Beat’.

There’s always a price to be paid for this kind of tight focus and there’s a good chance nothing AFX does now will ever shatter your jaw like the first exposure to ‘Gibbon’ or ‘Laughable Butane Bob’ not to mention his remix of 808 State’s ‘Flow Coma’ or his terrifying ‘ardkore reassembly of Smojphace’s ‘Run The Place Red’. Probably what’s not said often enough about RDJ’s current output is how funky it is – both this EP and Syro (although vastly different in terms of style and production) are both very loose limbed. They are some of the most danceable things he has released and speak of someone more at ease with himself perhaps. There isn’t really enough space to go into it here but I’m hoping that all of this purging that’s been going on in the RDJ camp over the last year; all of this airing of archive material as albums, EPs and Soundcloud dumps, represents an act of blowing the chambers or clearing space for a new phase of creativity or even a brand new project perhaps.

But in the meantime I’m happy. I’ve been holding on for a horse. AFX partisans have been waiting on tenterhooks for a horse. WARP wanted AFX to deliver a horse. AFX has now completely absolved his responsibilities to everyone by giving us a horse. And lo… it’s a particularly fine horse. A muscular horse. A noble horse. A nimble horse. It may well be regarded in years to come as one of the finest horses to come out of his stables. So why are all of us having to endure some partially engaged mithering dick priest on the internet complaining because AFX hasn’t given us a fucking glideboard?

I didn’t want a glideboard.

I didn’t want a robot horse.

I didn’t want a horse in a tuxedo.

I didn’t want a horse in deely boppers and jeggings on two glideboards.

I was looking for a horse and I found a horse, so heaven knows I’m happy now.

But this happiness is impermanence. England’s iron core will slough us all off sooner rather than later and when all of us are gone and not even our modest gravestones remain, the sound of AFX will echo on as part of an unshakable body of work.

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