Aphex Twin - Syro - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Aphex Twin - Syro

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2014-09-22

Way back in 1994, R&S Records released a compilation of Aphex Twin’s first two EPs, Digeridoo and Xylem. With tongue no doubt in metaphorical cheek, the release was named Classics. Twenty years later, that name is starting to sound like a statement of fact.

Throughout the 90s, it seemed like Aphex Twin, aka Richard D James, rewrote the sonic blueprint of electronic music with every release. From the deep, daring silences between the sounds of Selected Ambient Works Volume II to the screeching glitch of ‘Ventolin’, from the industrial-techno of ‘Come to Daddy’ to ‘Windowlicker’s sexy, warped vocals, James wasn’t just ahead of the curve, he was the curve, showing others the way forward.

In the 13 years since James went dark (as Aphex Twin at any rate), we’ve had grime, dubstep, post-dubstep and EDM. So many acts have borne James’ influence in one way or another, from the manic, aggressive clatter of many grime artists, to Burial’s uneasy ambience, to Glasgow acts currently redrawing the electronic map like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie.

And yet, many music fans around the world have been, perhaps without even fully releasing, holding their breath and waiting for the return of the king. Why? Well, perhaps because, like David Bowie, while James’ music has been assimilated into various genres, we know it’s never actually been bettered, just splintered, spread around and imitated.

So now he’s back, and what to make of Syro? In some ways, it’s just like he’s never been away. Much of the album feels like James has followed on pretty directly from the sounds of his last two big releases, 2001’s Drukqs and 2006’s Chosen Lords (released as AFX). Opening track ‘minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] [aka as the manchester track]’ (yes, we must deal with these sort of titles once more) sounds at once a little retro with its burbles of fat analogue synth and yet utterly eccentric, beats head-banging each other, competing textures cascading all over the shop. Like Bowie’s The Next Day, it’s familiar, but it could only be the work of one man.

It almost goes without saying that there’s nothing of Syro that indicates James is trying to imitate anything released in the last 13 years. In fact, there’s nothing to indicate he’s even listened to anything new in that time. Since James has claimed to have “thousands” of unreleased albums knocking around, we can’t even be sure when the tracks on Syro were made.

He has said he regards the tunes here as being his more “accessible” cuts, which seems to mean that if you’re familiar with his previous stuff, there’s nothing here which will really knock you sideways with surprise. Syro is Aphex Acid through and through. The only notable new trend is a tendency towards vocordered vocals, body-popping beats and spasms of 80s funk synth, as evidenced on the 10-minute epic ‘XMAS_Eve10 (thanaton3 mix)’ and the excellent ‘produk 29’, a kind of retro-futurist vibe not dissimilar to that explored by Hudson Mohawke and others.

However, this again is not wholly new; ‘Taking Control’ on Drukqs was distinctly retro and funky, while his ‘Analord’ series of 12ins was all about the analogue sounds. So I’m not sure if this new (old) style really counts as a progression, but it certainly proves James isn’t stuck re-treading the banging fads of yesteryear. In fact, only ‘180db_’ sounds like an intentional journey back to early rave, its monolithic beat and cheap speed synths roughing you up and nicking your wallet before a drum ‘n’ bass molotov crashes in.

Aphex Twin’s music, then, is like The Fall: always different, always the same. It still sounds halfway between the best rave ever and a lysergic nightmare. You still feel like you have precious little to cling onto as you slip and tumble down these sonic waterslides for the first time. Only after repeated listens do the likes of ‘4 bit 9d epi+e+6’ reveal the fun and melody behind their forbidding exteriors.

Syro keeps the pressure on and the bpm high into its second half, with the bleep-on-steroids monstrosity ‘CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)’ being particularly aggressive, even featuring what sounds like a heavily-treated guitar (it probably isn’t). In fact, this pedal-to-the-metal vibe continues right until the album’s final track, where James suddenly wrong-foots the listener by returning to Drukqs’ excursions into prepared piano and John Cage-style minimalism. Previously debuted at London’s Barbican in 2012, ‘aisatsana’ is a fragile piano piece reminiscent of Erik Satie, its sparse, live-sounding chords fading out over distant birdsong.

So that’s Aphex Twin in 2014: not quite setting the agenda any more, but still an iconoclast; still, somehow, untouchable. James has intimated there will be more new music from him soon – new to us at least.

If nothing else, Syro gives us the chance to reassess those older releases, the likes of ‘Windowlicker’ and ‘Come to Daddy’. They weren’t just odd, out-of-place violations of the pop continuum, dreamed up by some shadowy madman whose genius was unsustainable, even though they sometimes felt that way over the last decade and a bit. No, they're classics. Genuine classics. 

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