Aphex Twin – Syro: A First Listen Review

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

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!!! 

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