Aphex Twin, for the few that may not know of him, is Richard D. James, one of the most revered electronic artists of all time. He’s built up an impressive library of aliases spanning different eras of music and styles since the 80’s, and cultivated a sort of cult of secrecy about him like: disdaining any interviews and giving flippant, cryptic answers for the few he humoured. His last full album was Druqs in 2001, and his last real released work, the Analord series, frankly did little to inspire me, as expansive as it may have been (~60 tracks over 11 EPs). Now the silence has been broken by Syro, and for an actual interview with him, that’s quite good, I’d suggest reading this, it’ll explain some important things from a first-hand source.
Now, Syro. It’s sort of like a little of the “same,” but in the best way possible. The tracks feel like they have a classical sort of influence to them; they feel old but it’s all brought in a fresh way. There’s almost pervasive 80’s synth feel flowing underneath many of the tracks, like you could expect to hear them in a Blade Runner-esque film. I say that in the best way possible. When acid or jungle beats get piled on top of them, juxtoposed by the strange, processed vocals of James, his sons, or his wife, it makes for a captivating combination. Sometimes the beats, melody, and voices are given such a texture that is just… satisfying. You feel you know some of the samples, yet without feeling trite. I swear I hear the Amen Break sample in several of the tracks, and it’s glorious. Many of the tracks shift from style to style, and because plenty are in the 5-6 minute range (with one being over 10 minutes), they have room enough to breathe and change in an unhurried way.
In many of the tracks, Aphex Twin isn’t opposed to using cross-channel sweeps, which I love. In the 8th track “CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymoming mix] (oh yeah, the tracks are anything but easy to suggest to someone, if you can imagine; “Hey, check out that ‘s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]’ track yet?” Yeah, nah) it often works to great, almost disorienting effect, where you have harsh snares and analogue burbles writhing in the highs and lows, but the main body of the audio sticks square in the center channel (right in the middle of your head, basically), and to have a smooth, soft sound, or a softly-sung voice come in from the right, cascade into the left, and sort of jiggle back and forth, it’s like wiping a damp towel across a feverish brow. So refreshing, but also makes your head spin a little.
He has other moments of juxtaposition using the voices. In the 2nd track, the sprawling 10+ minute “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix],” it has a sort of soft acid feel to it, with a sort of synth-aided piano that drones a melody across the whole track; sounds that fill the ears almost completely, while a warble-aided amen break beat just hammers up the middle. About two-thirds in, when perhaps the thumping and ear-filling synths are getting a little tiring, the soft voice of a child sweeps in, which provides a soothing sort of auditory relief, however brief, until the amen break picks back up and pulls the synths along with it. A lovely, lovely effect, perhaps merely from timing.
When it comes to track lengths, none of them really feel too long, and none of them feel like they should have gone further. They seem to all have a pretty good pace and feel to them, with maaaaybe the exception of the 7th track “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85],” which is only 59 seconds long, and has a beat and rhythm that would have been excellent as a full-fledged track. Merely wishful thinking (like his ancient track under the Caustic Window alias, “Pigeon Street,” which is catchy, adorable, and 25 seconds long. Just enough to be devilishly catchy before drifting off into the next track).
What’s interesting is how… Friendly the album is to listen to. Not to say my grandmother would or could listen to it, I mean, but Syro lacks the mania and discordant fury that some of the Analord tracks or even some of his earlier work had. It’s less choppy, less frenetic, and almost more club friendly, if such a thing can even be said. It’s subjective, of course, but much of Aphex Twin’s later work became more of specific-timing sort of music -a vested listen- as opposed one of those albums you pop on as a whim. Druqs has moments of sheer noisiness that just doesn’t warrant an ordinary, everyday listen, at least to me. It’s like some of Autechre’s work, where it’s like hearing the sound of theoretical physics or something. Notes and squawks and beats and clangs and clashes that can only be parsed after some time passes and your brain gets used to all of the scrambled sounds (if at all, sometimes). It’s complicated, heavy. More like reading a dense novel versus a graphic novel, in a way.
That’s not a complaint whatsoever, it’s merely just to say that Syro doesn’t feel like it fits into that category. One of these tracks can come on, and while some may be unfamiliar with acid or jungle styles of electronic music, it wouldn’t be a wholly foreign sound. It’s accessible. Often catchy. For a 13 year album hiatus and nine-so-odd-year release absence, I think Syro is a fantastic way for Aphex Twin to re-emerge into the more mainstream music scene. Whether new generations of listeners will be interested in his slightly-dated styles and sounds is an interesting question. Many older listeners may also be turned off at how different Syro is to his choppier, almost tongue-in-cheek style from the 90’s, and how less esoteric it is compared to his later Druqs or Analord. Hard for me to say, of course. It’s thoroughly impressed me, and I really think I’d suggest it regardless of the Aphex Twin prestige behind it. A properly enjoyable album on its own merits; it being the first album of a music legend after a decade is just icing on an already tasty cake.
Also as a footnote: serious thanks and kudos to Pitchfork for having some great coverage on Syro: a great interview and an album stream. Due credit where credit is due.