Review Summary: Selected Aphex Works: 02-14
Thirteen years buys you a bit of time. Time for reflection, for isolation and refinement; time even to sit back and be satisfied with all that you've accomplished. Is Aphex Twin Richard D. James' true identity? Are all the aliases and monikers subversions of his true self? While Aphex Twin quietly faded away from public consumption AFX rose, and then of course, let's not forget about The Tuss (because I mean, come on right?
). Is RDJ's legacy so tied into the one brand name that any documentation on Syro
can't begin without first noting that it is the first long-form material to bear the Aphex handle in thirteen years? Perhaps it is, in which case the absence somewhat explains itself. In the habitual press campaign leading up to release date, James talked about how music is only now coming out because it felt "ready for the world". Does that notion extend to the artist as well? In a turbulent musical landscape now so hellbent on subjugating any and all electronic music, did the recent Caustic Window furor remind Aphex that even machines need love too? Regardless of whether or not Syro
is a product of reluctance or a willingness to surface, its contents are a scattering of where Richard D. James' head has been wandering to over the last few years, its unified front based entirely under the marriage of analogue alchemy with digital precision. Red carpet welcome or victory lap parade, Syro
doesn't so much as reshape the alchemical bedrock that Aphex Twin made a foundation out of 20+ years ago, but rather disregards everything in the interim, steadfastly ignoring the production date it finds itself stamped with.
At its surface, Syro
appears deceptively slight. Its subtle quirkiness finds itself in stark opposition to the glitch-riddled acid Aphex served up at the height of his late-90s govern. As if James never felt wholly comfortable reconciling his identity under any one particular frame of mind, his career has always been defined by its very lack of overt definition. As such, Syro
agglomerates itself like a glad bag of faded snapshots, borrowing liberally from all of RDJ's permutations. It leaves the album without any clear cut identity, trading in the expected public moneyshot by relying instead on its ties to good stock. An argument could be made that Syro
seems like the obvious next step after 'Windowlicker', but instead several connections pin it closer to Selected Ambient Works 85-92
, still perhaps, Aphex Twin's defining body of work. There's a logic at work on this album that seems, at times, latently contradictive in nature. A kind of dialectic dualism that, on the one hand serves up some of the most accessible material that James has ever produced. And on the other, the fervent mastery and command that almost languidly reveals itself over time - the pain-staking process of enslaved machines shaping and molding every biological piece into a binary tableau of masterwork precision.
Casual listeners will immediately gravitate around '180db_', it's the most opportunistic Aphex has ever portrayed himself to be. That fuzzy bassline, the kick-drum lapping circles around the binding four-to-the-floor; not even 'Windowlicker' was this immediate, this dedicated to the dance floor. It's James reverting back to simple showmanship, never preening so much as strutting his abilities to warp fringe-experimentalism into hard-hitting knockout techno. It's Aphex levying himself against the mass exploitation of a sound he helped pioneer, and it's here where, for a brief moment, he seems to let his guard down. His career might be based on a skewed kind of mirth, but this is sonically the most playful and flippant he's ever been, as the rest of Syro
settles around the po-faced histrionics we've come to expect over the years.
It's a dramaturgical model that still allows for as much enjoyment to show through as before, but like all of Aphex's work it creates a balancing pivot, with the hard-nosed SAW
enthusiasts at one point, and a motley assortment of jesting gypsies at the other. Syro
attempts to placate both parties, which predictably leads to unpredictable results. 'XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)' begins with mood and menace, before settling into mid-90s open-field euphoria. It's a track that reinforces Aphex's innate ear for both melody and sequencing; the song doesn't so much as go through various movements as much as it just seems to move
on its own, shaking itself off, reorganizing its hardware and shifting under James' modular influence. 'Produk 29' unfolds in a similar fashion, though here the fabrication seems to be on a similar alignment with electronic music's early genesis as "music for the future". Synthesizers are compacted and folded over themselves like an accordion stretched and squeezed into submission, the percussion alternating between static accomplice and force of motion by a simple accelerant in the hi-hat. Like the anthem to a replicant nightclub, it's background music heard over white noise; like an ear worm it remains long after it expires, realigning your internal rhythm, playing havoc with your nervous system.
'syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)' feels like the inverse to 'Produk 29's rhythmic coalescence; while the latter felt like an exercise in motion, the former takes Aphex's funk-inflected percussion and shoots it off down a neon freeway of diacritic bass and Detroit overtures. 'CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)' is an extension of this idea, though it plays out with a manic intensity the rest of the album seems to lack, balancing its propulsive breakbeats against a patchwork of acid arrangements that upends the cyber mythology of its ambient intro. From a production point of view it's peerless, but its design fails to lend itself to anything other than technological mastery. Whereas Syro
's first half feels like an exploration, a re-engineering of an artist who broke so much ground more than two decades ago, its back-end is populated only with refinement. Which isn't a complaint by any means, more just that the album seems to settle comfortably into a sweet spot that its first half worked so hard to arrive at. Even the Analogue Bubblebath
-aping 'PAPAT4 (pineal mix)', with its rave-era merriment, feels more like a payoff than a building block.
There's a timeless quality to Syro
; as a new Aphex Twin album it's a marvel by sheer virtue of its existence so as a talking point alone will it long be held in religious sacrament. But it seems to exist in its own little vacuum; both like and unlike anything that Richard D. James has released thus far. As the product of a recording schedule that has spanned anywhere from 1 to 10 or so years (depending on what rumor you buy into), there's a somewhat disjointed nature to the release, a shift in the normally syncopated accent. Whether it's the culmination of, or the beginning of a whole new chapter of productivity for the producer is unclear at this time, but regardless Syro
stands as a quiet achievement, an un-fussy, humbling, and excellent release.