After years of near-silence, with only vague rumours of re-releases and hard drives full of music we’d never get to hear, this month we have been greeted with a new Aphex Twin album; Syro. We have missed him. We need him now more than ever, and this is why.
About halfway through the track ‘produk 29’, the third track on the new record, a sample of someone saying ‘fucking whore’ bubbles from the mix. This is the latest of several moments in the ‘Twin’s career where his music is catalysed into a sexually aggressive tour de force – in fact, in his recent interview with Rolling Stone he described himself as ‘horny’ for the album’s release, and he referred to his drum machine as ‘porn’ in a Pitchfork piece. In much of his output the music erupts violently from the speakers, searching for a malleable surface upon which to impress itself. From porno samples in ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Come On You Slags’, the sinister nursery-rhyme lurch in ‘Milkman’, the pounding periodic beats (pun intended) of ‘Tamphex’, to its apotheosis in the unsettling vocal manipulation of ‘Windowlicker’, violence against women and the tacit endorsement of it through music has always been at the forefront of his work.
Indeed, ‘Windowlicker’ is a single that gets more and more prescient as time goes on. It’s a pastiche of the tendency to reduce female vocal representation in tracks to something approaching a melodic orgasm (not a completely new thing), as in his single the women’s voices are purged of any signification. The music video pokes at the objectification of women in post G-funk music videos, but it is not a phenomenon condensed to that genre, and the timely arrival of projects like Everyday Sexism demonstrate to what extent sexual dynamics are predicated on sex being something that is ‘earned’, that women are a switch that needs to be thrown, or a commodity to be exploited. Sexual aggression seems a natural by-product of James’ music – the density of the beats leads inevitably to a shattering of defence. I’m aware that this is moving into the territory of Susan McClary claiming that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the aural equivalent of rape, which is too far, but James at least raises the question of to what extent his tracks can take up one side of a sexual dichotomy, where women are slags and whores defined solely by their menstrual cycle, while still being palatable.
Employing heavy pitch manipulation on ‘Windowlicker’ shatters the illusion; there is no guarantee of titillating femininity slithering out of the speakers because at any given second, the pitch drops and the tone is decidedly more masculine, just like the women in the video gyrate with all the expected movements of sexy background dancers, but with the rictus grin of Richard D. James’ absolutely terrifying face. Such shock tactics work very well at demonstrating one’s own complicity in an entertainment industry which uses women as fluffers in all but name, offering a brief spurt of arousal, but not much in the way of a voice. This is a problem that’s unlikely to ever go away; the video to Calvin Harris’ ‘Summer’ (if you weren’t aware, that song was released in the summer) has women as props with as much autonomy as the cars which are driven in it.
James has invoked gender segregation in music before – he has claimed that ‘Girl/Boy Song’ was composed and named in an attempt to avoid such a thing, and the cover of the vinyl rerelease of ‘Analogue Bubblebath 3’ features enigmatic male and female pictograms, the type used to distinguish toilets in public places. It’s these little choices that make me confident that the use of women in his songs is quite a considered statement, and not just something done ‘for the boys’.
‘Fucking whore’ is not the only sample in ‘produk 29’: there are other snatches of conversation, one of which is ‘we were in the club last night…’, not just alluding to sexual politics but also the change in performance context of electronic music in the time that Aphex Twin has been making it. He made his name by DJing raves in his native Cornwall. A few years later, a combination of improving technology, legal pressure and a marketing drive to bring innovative electronic music to the home put an increasing divergence between the Warp records stable (record labels inspired by the new sounds of Detroit/Chicago house which were the first to spot the gap in the market for the domestic listener), and club music which filled the ‘going out’ vacuum left by raves. Following the 1994 watershed, Big Beat acts like Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers congregated around centres like The Heavenly Social club, where the drugs of choice were alcohol based. It doesn’t take much to identify the sonic change to accompany the change of supplements: simply think of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’, released in 1996, with its refrain of ‘LAGER LAGER LAGER’. James’ discography offers plenty of incisive and satirical twists and turns on the development of electronic music since.
Indeed, it is rare that he will merely follow the momentum of scenes and changes of direction; if he’s not doing his own thing, he’s skewering everyone else’s hipster pretensions, cf. the infamous sandpaper DJ set. Still, it is one way of thinking about his output in the late 1990s, gravitating around the Richard D. James Album, as well as the continued use of his face as a creepy icon. The move to programming music on computers freed him from some of the inherent restrictions to working with analogue synthesisers, and the complexity of his percussion grew accordingly. It freed the music of some of its obligations to dancing and turned out a more purely aesthetic product as a consequence. The growth of Aphex iconography is a facet of the decline of raving anonymity, by commentating on the emergence of the DJ-as-celebrity, but as ever with James, the end result is an incisive satire at ninety degrees to the bulk of the scene. To use Calvin Harris’ videos as an example again (I’m sorry, but I have to), he has made a lot of his featuring himself as the protagonist in a glossy Hollywood-style production – within the very specific mythology of Calvin Harris videos, I can’t help but think this is a calculated effort ever since he looked on with envy at Dizzee Rascal’s antics from behind the bar in the clip for ‘Dance Wiv Me’. So when Aphex blimps appeared in the sky in the build-up to Syro’s release, part of it was wheezy marketing hyperbole, but it was also the latest instalment in a long-standing satirical commentary on celebrity DJs. It preceded Harris and Guetta and it will probably outlive them as well, as their distinctive bland sonic footprints in the sand are washed away by the tide of time.
After moving to computer technology in the wake of …I Care Because You Do¸ James began the Analord series in a deliberate effort to be re-acquainted with analogue technology. Such movement characterises James’ ambivalent relationship with technology, and the wider comment that its inclusion in dance music makes. Another track on Syro, ‘XMAS EVET 10’, has a title which recalls the ‘Christmas Tree Exec’, or the first widely transmitted computer worm. There is precedent for this in the discography: Analord instalments 08, 09, and 11 all feature tracks named for computer viruses. That these names should occur as part of a technologically regressive project is significant. What you end up with is a strange cybernetic cross-section between computer viruses, the old trope of dancing being a form of hysterical mania needed to cure infection (as in tarantism, leading to the tarantella dance), and the divide between analogue and digital technologies.
This hybridization is reflective of something Aphex has talked about intermittently in interviews, for example his recent Rolling Stone interview:
“We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”
‘Half-cyborg’ is a great word to describe the Aphex project. Even in the context of using analogue synthesisers, using file titles styled on computer viruses implies an unseen digital transference, that the phenomenon of dancing as a purge of demons within the body has been superseded by computer viruses. Whereas the history of the tarantella is dancing in order to rid one of disease, the equivalence of dancing with computer viruses reverses the dynamic, so that dancing is controlled and instigated by the new parasite through our half-cyborg bodies.
The promotional material for Syro has been a relentless breakdown of statistical material. The Analord series may have delved into the matter of viruses, but Syro’s immediate concern appears to be raw data, perhaps fitting given how much of an industry ‘big data’ has become during Aphex’s absence. The immediate worry of the digital space is not what it was 10 years ago – namely, the threat of malignant programs which could wipe out entire systems overnight (dramatized in Hollywood through The Matrix, Swordfish, The Italian Job et al), but the extent to which individuals can be broken down into discrete bits and bytes that are ordered and controlled by advertisers, corporations, and politicians. The preview single ‘mini pops’ has, on YouTube, a background giving detailed analysis of where, how, and when the track was listened to, and the cover art is a receipt for the total costs incurred in producing the album. Again there is the pressing question of how to receive music with such material around it; is the music itself just another form of data, another commodity that runs down the series of tubes with very little to distinguish it? This is why electronic music achieves the status of high art in the present day, and why Aphex Twin matters more than ever – he is the one best positioned like the gremlin from ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’, tearing out the fuselage in the plane with a sheer bloody-minded curiosity.
We can discuss all we like about how accurately novels, films and indeed any genre can discuss contemporary issues relating to the Internet and digitisation, but electronic music is unique at being at the front line, requiring digital tools for its composition and transference. Walter Pater said in 1877 that ‘all art aspires constantly to the condition of music’, as he felt music was the only art form in which the form and the subject matter are the same. He didn’t have to worry about how electronic tools could complicate this idea, as traditional instrumentation seems an ineffective way to comment on issues relevant to a switched-on world. I’ve written before about Radiohead and their contribution to interrogating the particular circumstances in which we live, but it is Aphex Twin and the IDM school which are closer to Pater’s vision of pure abstraction, and hence the purest concentration of the mood and concerns of the world in which they inhabit, with fewer barriers of mediation.
In doing so, James has always had a cheeky penchant for juxtaposing his most esoteric electronic compositions with acoustic-based works, like ‘Goon Cumpas’, ‘Flim’,’Avril 14th’ ‘Logan Rock Witch’, and ‘Nannou’. The latter two are strident examples because their music-box quality makes them steampunk, finding older parallels with computer production of music in autonomous devices. He exposes the myth of true authenticity with acoustic music, as even his most-stripped back compositions typically have the piano prepared or manipulated in some way.
He’s a rare breed, a musician whose early training came with circuits and ‘sounds’, and then working backwards to the avant-garde composers of Cage et al. He brings to acoustic instruments the methodology of an engineer, emphasising their potential versatility but also the hypocrisy in considering acoustic music to be somehow more truthful than electronic – equal temperament is a tuning compromise, after all (I wrote that days before Pitchfork published their interview with James where he talks a good deal about equal temperament in very similar terms. I don’t expect anyone to believe me, but I’m keeping it here in sheer stubbornness, mixed between pride and anger that I could come up with something that had a kernel of truth in it while being scuppered at the last moment. Fuck you, Pitchfork.). James’ music does not lead you to think of music as fidelitous to a particular ideal of using tools to make sounds, and logically progressing to emotions. His music is the inevitable by-product of systems, and his steampunk experiments prove it has a longer history than just the computer – instruments are not blank tools, but systems to be modified. Again, this is important in 2014 because he complicates the idea that if he just switched everything off, we would find ourselves in a more organic state – he shows how deep our dependence on closed systems is, even when we don’t recognise it.
Much of the movement of electronic music during James’ career has, of course, been instigated by him – Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk credits ‘Windowlicker’ as being the inspiration for he and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to come up with Discovery, an album that tried to show how electronic music could be the ‘soundtrack to people’s lives’. With no clubs in their native Cornwall to speak of, James and his peers largely developed their own music scene. The great advantage of being so removed from what is ‘happening’ in London is the ability to make music much more indicative of your surroundings and your consciousness, without the sacrifice to being part of a much larger whole, one which is out of your control. The end of raving as a public phenomenon and growth of living-room dance music paved the way for a closer channel of communication between artist and listener, one freed of the aspiration towards androgynous dancefloor utopia to some extent. It is to James’ credit that he has managed to consistently produce music which straddles both sides, fluctuating between bleeding-edge cool dance music and more introspective pieces that are intimately connected with the feeling of isolation and desolation along the south-west coast. There are some great examples of this: ‘Blue Calx’, with its metronomic percussion and bubbling synth all feeling very aquatic, like rain falling on a window. Alarm Will Sound drew this out brilliantly in their cover, probably the highlight of their Aphex Twin cover record. ‘Gwely Mernans’ extends the same sort of aural relationship, as the percussion’s slithering between left and right channels may be indicative of a lurking monster beyond your view or maybe you’re tripping and you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Drukqs as a whole is full of little interlude tracks that sound like someone going inside traditionally sacred, cavernous spaces – churches for example – and messing around with the instruments found in there, to continue the theme of challenging the sanctity of music – listen to ‘QKThr’,’ Btoum-Roumada’ and ‘Prep Gwarek 3B’ as examples of what I mean. ‘Quino-Phec’ sees James approach the mode of Boards of Canada/Brian Eno circa Ambient 4, playing up to the punning title of the album Surfing On Sine Waves as it produces the aural equivalent of swash and backwash on an empty beach. I have to confess I’ve never been to Cornwall myself, but the geography must be pretty intense to have influenced James and Eno (‘Lizard Point’) to make this incredibly unsettling ambient music.
In his contribution to the 33 1/3 series, Marc Weidenbaum talks about how James and his friends were effectively creating their own music scene in the barren cultural landscape of Cornwall. Yet the barren geographical landscape is also present in another liminal space between the organic and the technological. Electronic music appears to be a very simple way of entering a world not tied down to geographical specificities, but the tracks mentioned above and indeed pretty much the whole of Selected Ambient Works Volume II allow some local ghosts to creep in. James memorably described that album as ‘like standing in a power station on acid’, though I’ve always been unclear to the extent at which that power station is functional; it strikes me as an abandoned one, with native vegetation reclaiming the instruments slowly blinking away into termination – not difficult to imagine when one remembers that album was only 8 years after Chernobyl.
What relevance does that all have today? Well, there are always refuseniks who need to be converted to the emotive possibilities of electronic music. Syro lacks any of the tracks in that ambient vein, and in fact James hasn’t written tracks in that style for over a decade, but they remain as astonishing pieces of work, a brilliant combination of music and sound effect which creates such a deep mental landscape, it makes you wonder when the rest of electronic music is going to catch up.
It’s always difficult to write about Richard D. James, because you can never be entirely certain that you’re not writing yourself into the punchline of a joke which is being made entirely at your expense. Having said that, I feel a bit more confident now that he has given some surprisingly candid interviews for the promotion of Syro, which I’ve quoted from here (even if it does mean breaking the hearts of IDM hipsters all over the world , who must be thinking, “Rolling Stone and Pitchfork? Really?”). Syro isn’t as revolutionary as some of his earlier albums, but it contains enough continuity to them to demonstrate his importance not just in making cutting-edge electronic music, but in sonically mapping the world we live in.