Aphex Twin : SYRO
To those who know me and my musical tastes, it might come off as a surprise that I am such a fan of Richard D. James, not only of the music he’s released as Aphex Twin, but also of the 10 or so other monikers he’s recorded under throughout his 30 year career. It’s true, his music doesn’t check most of the boxes that tend to describe what I usually listen to. Traditional melody and song-form? Nope. Emotional, honest, or insightful lyrics? Debatable, but not really. A clear focus on the song and avoidance of unnecessary ornamentation and flair? Depends on the album. I’m not saying there are no similarities between most of the music I listen to and the kind James regularly puts out, but three of the key areas I tend to gravitate towards are definitely missing.
So why is it that I truly love James’ music, and am ready to put “SYRO” – his first album as Aphex Twin in 13 years – at number 2 on my favorite albums of 2014?
To find the answer we should first look the idea of influence.
Much has already been said about James’ extraordinary output throughout his career, not only under the moniker of Aphex Twin, but under all of his other musical pseudonyms as well. Under various aliases, James has released 15 albums and almost 40 EPs, the sonic scope of which is nothing short of breathtaking. Almost never doing the same thing twice, James has created music in almost every sub-genre of electronic music, breaking new ground in many of them, and releasing music that doesn’t fit into an established genre with stunning regularity.
To simply call James’ music influential doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Artists from almost every genre regularly cite his music as an inspiration to them. From his original experiments with ambient music, to his genre bending tendencies, to the kind of gear that he uses to create his vast palette of sounds; if James has done something over the course of his career, someone has likely cited it as an influence on their own music.
There is however, a flip-side to influence: expectation. The second you release something that your audience cites as important or influential, not only are you expected to do it again, but all your future work will be evaluated against it. Time and again artists have buckled under the pressure of the expectations their own influence has brought about. Some retreat inwards and avoid releasing anything new for years. Others let it go to their head and become increasingly irritating. Others make “Chinese Democracy.” James spent so much of his career defying the expectations of others by consistently reinventing himself, making it a complete fools errand to try and predict what his next release will sound like. Even through all that however, he hasn't been able to completely escape the long shadow of expectation, in fact he may have made it harder on himself. At this point, the only expectation about a new release from James is that it will be fantastic.
I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to put a lot of weight on an artists’s influence in their field. Regardless of whether or not I personally care for their work, I’ll hold out at least some respect for an artist who has influenced others. The actual importance of influence is something that I’ve been grappling with as of late, but I’m readily aware that influence isn’t everything. A great and important artist is just as capable of putting out crap as anyone else, and I can’t think of a single musician with a long and storied career – including James – that hasn’t done so. But is influence the only reason I love and respect James’ music?
Not at all.
In fact, I think the core of why I hold James in such high esteem came from when I stopped approaching him as a songwriter, and started listening to him as if he were a composer.
I came to James’ music in the summer of 2012. I was considering devoting an episode of my weekly radio show to his music, and though I was casually familiar with him and why he was so important, I really needed to become extremely well versed in his music if I were to have any chance of contextualizing it for my listeners. So for over a month, I listened to James’ music almost exclusively, internalizing and memorizing it, and really finding ways to talk about it on air. Overall it wasn't too hard. Live with something for long enough and you’ll eventually be able to point out some of it’s smaller details. But while I was able to break down the albums and talk about them, I was having trouble doing so with the individual songs.
The only way I was able to start breaking down the songs was when I approached them as if they were short compositions, as sound pieces intended to be explored and experienced, rather than as songs meant to identify and grow with. Listening to the songs as if they were short compositions made me appreciate their intricacies, and allowed me to pull them apart and inspect the individual elements that made them up. I normally hate dissecting music like this – it becomes far to easy miss the big picture when you’re focused on a tiny detail – but in this case it offered me a way into the heart of James’ music, and once inside, I could begin to rebuild the individual songs from the ground up and appreciate them as a whole.
Using that approach gave me a much greater understanding of James’ music. I still focused on how innovative each of his releases were, but I could track techniques and commonalities present in all of his recordings. A string began to form as I listened to more and more of his records, allowing me to tie them together and really group them under one artist. I came to the opinion that it wasn’t just how varied and influential James’ music was that was so impressive. Rather it was the fact that throughout all his genre-bending-experiments, over the astonishing amount of ground he’s covered, you could still sense that it was made by one man, that a similar sense of humanity ran through every release.
It should be no surprise at this point that I was extremely excited when James announced the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. Hell, I learned how to browse the dark-web just to visit “SYRO’s” announcement page. That excitement subsided quickly however, and gave way to questions: What would it sound like? Would it have the recognizable humanity present in all James’ releases? How long would I need to live with it before I could really appreciate what James was going for? Most importantly though, would it be worth the 13 year wait?
The short answer was a resounding “Yes!” “SYRO” is one of the most successful releases James has put out in years. It’s innovative without completely throwing the listener off base, and deftly handles the expectations of diehard fans and casual observers alike.
In fact, possibly the most surprising thing about “SYRO” is how familiar it feels. If someone in 2001 were to predict what an Aphex Twin album would sound like 13 years later, this is probably pretty close to what they would have described. It feels like a natural progression, pulling in many of the melodic experimentations of “drukQs” and fusing them with some of the more breakbeat rushes of his earlier releases. We’ve heard many of the sounds on this album elsewhere in James’ catalogue, but here they are presented in a way that feels both familiar and entirely new. James may not break a whole lot of new ground on “SYRO,” but he shows us how to synthesize all the knowledge gained from a lifetime of doing so.
The fact that “SYRO” will seem familiar to anyone even causally versed in James’ music may come as something of a shock to those approaching it from a historical viewpoint. “Isn’t what make’s Aphex Twin interesting is the amount of influence he’s had over electronic music?” “How will he stay relevant if he’s not constantly innovating?” Yet, somehow “SYRO” makes even more sense with those viewpoints in mind. James plays with expectations throughout the entire record, not only the where one might expect any given song to go, but with the expectations of what the album will accomplish.
I found myself surprised by “SYRO,” several times throughout my first listen. While I still approached as a series of compositions, there were plenty of moments in which James used or twisted a sound in a completely unexpected way. The warped sound of an unintelligible voice would re-appear as a synth or drum tone, or songs would take on a completely different character from the one hinted at in their opening bars. My technique for dissecting this album still worked, but it was almost as if James saw every one of my expectations for the album coming, and built in sections that would purposefully trip me up. Listening to “SYRO” is like playing chess against a grand master. James knows exactly where you’re going to be long before you do, and is ready and waiting to throw you off balance when you get there.
Those who paid attention to the albums and EP’s James released under some of his other monikers over the past decade might view “SYRO” as a something of a period, as an end to this chapter in his career. It takes everything James has learned and perfected in other releases, and synthesizes them into something new, something truly grater than the sum of it’s individual parts. If nothing else, “SYRO” proves that James’ long retreat from releasing music as Aphex Twin was a well deserved one. I’m thrilled to have him back, and can’t wait to see where the next stage of his career takes him, but if James needs another 13 years before the next Aphex Twin album is ready, “SYRO” proves that he’s earned it