Review Summary: A difficult but fascinating look into a less-heard side of Aphex Twin's output. Recommended for fans, however, novice fans are better off with "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" or "Richard D. James Album" as starter points.
Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, has an incredibly eclectic discography, spanning over 20 years with music varying wildly in approach and execution, exploring and stretching the boundaries and possibilities of electronic music, often tagged with the much-derided term "IDM". All in all, a staggering 4 albums document his early days (generally around 1985-1993), each representing thoroughly disparate sides of his sound. There's "Selected Ambient Works 85-92", his most acclaimed album, which is a generally soft sounding, chilled-out, but still beat-driven album that doesn't sound like the ambient music pioneered by the likes of Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. There's the "Classics" compilation, practically the polar opposite, filled with head-drilling hardcore techno and chock-full of crunching metallic malevolency. There's "Surfing On Sine Waves", his Warp Records debut released under (one of) his (many) alternate alias(') "Polygon Window", which offers a somewhat best of both worlds...
...And then there's this: "Selected Ambient Works Vol.II". Despite the similar name, this collection of ambient recordings presumably spanning the same period as the first volume, bares little to no resemblance to the first album. Released in 1994, the music featured in this retrospective bears some better resemblance to the ambient music that originated from the aforementioned artists. But still, nothing sounds quite like the quiet claustrophobia of Richard's mind (these "songs" were inspired by lucid dreams he had) ebbed into these haunting soundscapes. Nothing presented here is aimed to please your everyday casual music fan. The Aphex Twin logo is the only recognizable visual clue that this is an Aphex Twin album. Apart from the obviously strange content of this double-disc (!) album, there is no visible track listing on the packaging; only a series of pie charts and a series of photos in the booklet that apparently correspond with each “slice” of the pie charts, and what’s worse is that some of these abstract photos are hard to make out. (This situation is remedied if you insert the discs into your computer; iTunes gives you presumed track names).
Now, the actual music…
The first disc is the single-most alienating disc in Richard D. James’s broad discography. The music is pure texture, with almost no beats present (and certainly nothing remotely danceable), and only the occasional snatch of a broken-up vocal sample to accent the melodies. The first track “Cliffs” is pure melody, with some cut-up woman vocalisations dotted around the gently ebbing, flowing synth. This goes on for some time, until an oriental-sounding keyboard pattern adds to the texture. The track goes on for 7 minutes with just these 3 elements, subtlety varying each of these sounds, sometimes dropping each of them out of the mix, re-appearing gently and somewhat un-noticeably. This may sound dull, but this is dreamy, tranquil music that doesn’t require full attention to enjoy, and has an almost minimalist quality to it. The second track “Radiator”, pursues a similar structure, based on just 2 electronically created melodies, no more than 3 or 4 notes each, dipping in and out of the mix, slowly evolving with faint arrhythmic squeaks serving not to keep tempo, but to compliment the sounds. Simple, but incredibly effective. And then there’s “Rhubarb”, which stands as one of Aphex Twin’s most beautiful pieces of music ever, and certainly the most well known track from this album. A gorgeous, mourning melody orchestrated with lush strings, harmonizing, building, and ultimately captivating the listener for all of 7:44 minutes. Arguably the finest piece of music on this entire 2-disc album.
So far, it’s taken a whole paragraph to cover the first 3 tracks. I could go on for longer to cover the entire album, but I’ll only cover what’s needed (apologies for the length of this review). The tranquillity of the first few tracks is not to last; the 4th track, somewhat bizarrely named “Hankie”, is the sound of a serial killer lurking, with dissonant, droning synth motifs that sound like go-karts racing, building into a nightmarish wash of quiet insanity. And it works fantastically. The simplicity of the tracks combined with no truly official track names allow the listener for further interpretation, creating vivid mental images; “Grass” is 8 minutes of slowly building tension, with ghostly 4 note synth motifs building on top of each other over a ponderous, faint tribal drum beat, creating the mental image of a dark, mist imbued Amazon of sorts. “Curtain”, in my opinion, is the sound of a lonely ghost wondering through a dark, derelict mansion at night.
One of the album’s finest moments comes in the form of “Tree”. A foreboding, nightmarish and truly scary work of dark, dank dissonance stretching for 10 minutes, all based around a single motif; the rumbling of a single low synth note, fading in and out of the mix, with ghoulish piano tinkering, cold strings and feedback adding to the uneasy and frightening nature of the track. Some 4 minutes in, a warm string motif threatens to save the listener from madness, until that low, rumbling sound comes back, even more intimidating and unfriendly than before. And the whole thing is brilliant. It just works.
The second disc is somewhat a bit more similar (but still different) to standard Aphex Twin fare. First track “Blue Calyx”, another highlight, could’ve been from “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, with it’s majestic strings yearn over echoing, rhythmic dripping sounds. “Hexagon”, also, could’ve been on the previous volume. “Parallel Stripes”, however, stands as truly alien. It sounds like machines in an office playing a symphony, with no light in the room but that from computer screens. “Shiny Metal Rods” is the sole truly beat-driven moment on the album, featuring a dirty, grungy beat modulated throughout it’s duration, and serves as another great example of effective simplicity.
“Grey Spots”, “Tassels” and “Spots” are works of alien music concrete, filled with layers of spooky space sounds, but no melody. Some may find these interesting, but they can be grating.
“White Blur 2”, which sounds nothing like “White Blur” (from Disc 1, which is another “music concrete” style piece, but much more interesting than the ones on Disc 2), is another lengthy track, standing at 11 ½ minutes. However, it’s length, compared to “Grass” and “Tree”, seems unjustified. It consists of one sole motif with various “sounds” and snatches of human voices looping around it. It just feels like a bit of excess. This one explicit dud, however, only makes closer “Match Sticks” further stand out as a fitting finale. It’s a soaring, symphonic epic of strings swooping high and low over a quiet, echoing drum sound. It works well as a condensation of the album’s general sound, and it’s here that our 2 ½ hour journey ends.
Wherever or not you enjoy this album is less based on the quality of the actual album, but rather, wherever or not you enjoy the unusual content held within. It's certainly not for everyone, and it is VERY long (2 1/2 hours acroos both discs is demanding), but those who favour it will likely be thoroughly fascinated. This gets an 8/10.