Review Summary: Aphex Twin's Latest Experiment Yields Mixed Results
After such a long hiatus from releasing material under his most famous moniker, Aphex Twin, Richard’s latest offering may come as a bit of a shock. 2014’s meticulously-produced and synth-laden “Syro” appeared shortly after a blimp was noticed looming over London bearing the enigmatic symbol we’re all familiar with. And here we are, a mere four months later with his latest experiment in hand, “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2”. The thirteen track EP not only fails to pick up where Syro left off, but seems to have evolved almost entirely independent of its influence. Where Syro is an abundant, energetic and cohesive experience CCAI is a bit more disjointed, sparing and eccentric. Whether or not that difference in sound can be attributed directly to James’ vision, or to the restraints and limitations that the robots impose upon their master, isn’t entirely clear. As a literal interpretation of the EP’s title suggests, James has expanded into a physical medium and has taken on the not-so-easy task (just ask Squarepusher) of trying to tame a small colony of stubborn robots while perhaps, with enough badgering, convincing the machines to bring his sound across planes and into the natural world.
The experiment, which has been performed by others before, always appears appealing in it’s initial stages. Unfortunately for many who have tried before, and in certain instances for James himself, the theoretical yield gives way to the actual one, losing something in the process. In the case of James, however, he succeeded in breathing life into composition. The first track “diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13” steps the listener through a portal of ghostly sounding human voices only to be greeted by the ominous growl of the piano over the more distant clockwork-like clanking going on in the background. It’s shortly thereafter that we’re finally introduced to the leader, or leaders I should say, of the robots. The drums. Percussion is central to this EP with cymbals crashing, snares being struck, the thudding of bass, xylophones and bells alongside a host of other instruments being beaten and shaken in the background. The second track, entitled “snar2” after the robot featured and clocking in at only 20 seconds, serves as an instant reminder that you’re listening to an EP, and to a lesser extent that dogs are afraid of robots. “diskhat1” is fairly straightforward, the drums drag a goofy piano melody along through an echoing and oscillating landscape. “pian un1 aprej” is another small glimpse of robotic potential as a melancholy piano piece occasionally erupts in a frenzy of ascending keys.
The next song, “DISKPREPT4” is a highlight and a curiosity, making you wonder exactly what robots he’s using and how they’re set up during recording. It features a mischievous sounding melody you may have come to expect from the man and also provides a listen to robots straddling the threshold of what’s humanly possible while still retaining a distinctly organic sound. Immediately after you’re hit with drums, “hat 2b 2012b” is one of a few of such breaks and also indicates that vinyl is the preferred format here. Sadly, I only have the CD and thus cannot experience this EP at 45RPM (which is suggested along with 33 1/3 RPM on the vinyl itself). Listening to it lets you know that someone with the vinyl and the know-how could probably make something interesting out of these little bits. “disk prep calrec2 barn dance [slo]” is probably the biggest letdown here; it sounds like an ill-fated attempt at bringing something off of SAWII into existence, but where he could turn repetition and ambience into something beautiful with other technology at his disposal, this really just ends up being more annoying than anything else. “DISKPREPT1” succeeds where the previous track failed by teasing emotion out of the machines and also features the faint sounds of his kid in the background presumably looking at and discussing the robots. Sounds of life can be heard elsewhere throughout the EP(coughing, dogs barking,etc.), again reminding the listener that the sound has finally been released into the wild, or just pissing them off and causing them to complain about mastering. Whichever comes first.
The last two tracks are perhaps the best. “piano un10 it happened” is on par with some of his best piano pieces and,in my book at least , better than aisatsana and avril 14th, though I’m sure not everyone would agree. The EP concludes with “hat5c 0001 rec-4”, a track that starts off with menacing piano keys backed by more vibrant drumming and hissing cymbals until eventually a new instrument enters the groove, one that the more educated listener could probably identify. Whatever it is it provides a mesmerizing, hazy and smoke-filled kind of atmosphere to a song that drifts in and out in swells until the piano’s return, signaling that the journey is over. All in all this EP is arguably only a collection of seven songs with some beats and oddities thrown in for good measure. As with all experiments a risk of failure always exists, and while I certainly wouldn’t categorize this as such it isn’t without its flaws. I’m sure that fresh off the successful and accessible Syro this EP will be met with mixed reviews. At times it feels as though it is lacking, and while James certainly rose to the occasion it appears that the former master of one realm is more of a promising pupil in the next.
Edit: New EP is streaming on Spotify
(Credit to danielito19)