For anyone who grew up in the musically adventurous climate of the 90s, the name Aphex Twin is one sure to send shivers down the spine. A true musical visionary, Richard James, under his alter-ego Aphex twin, set about terrorising listeners with huge, sprawling albums, most notably 2001’s demented double album ‘drukqs’; and insane EPs, of which ‘come to daddy’ must surely be one of the most revered and feared of all. Disdainful of commercialism, Aphex Twin nevertheless became a much sought after artist, fashionable for other artists to namedrop and oft requested to do remixes despite the fact that any artist not considered worthy of Aphex Twin’s ministrations was liable to end up receiving unlistenable noise rather than a workable track. ‘Drukqs’ also transpired to be Aphex Twin’s last effort for a long time, fans forced to endure a guns ‘n’ roses aping thirteen year wait before James felt comfortable enough to pick up the mantle and return to the fray. Not that James has been inactive – there have been numerous releases under other guises – but nothing to compare to the wonder of a new Aphex twin release.
The result is ‘Syro’, an album packaged in the most ridiculous digi-pack imaginable, the listener having to unravel six panels just to get at the CD and packed with music with considerably more layers than that. It is a welcome return and, whilst not as aggressive as previous works, it still happily trades on the wonderful quirks that make Aphex Twin records so unique. Having influenced everyone from Radiohead to Toro Y moi, ‘Syro’ finds the Aphex twin in a surprisingly mellow mood, opening tracks ‘minipops 67’ and ‘xmas_evet10’ filled with scattershot innovation and obscure vocal elements. Closer in feel to 1999’s ‘windowlicker’, this is Aphex Twin making the pop music he hears in his head, and there is no question that a thirteen year absence has made the heart grow incredibly fond – listening to the album is like welcoming back an old friend – sure he looks a little older, but the dark humour and wry smile that made them a friend is still present and correct. With its echoing, sampled speech, ‘produk 29’ is somehow menacing with its minor key shifts and awkward beats whilst ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6’recalls the unhinged remixes that graced the ‘come to daddy’ EP, Aphex Twin still effortlessly sounding like no one else out there. It’s a measure of the innovation that was representative of ‘drukqs’ that even thirteen years on, James can draw on a similar template and yet still sound completely untouched by his peers despite numerous attempts to emulate his sound over the intervening years.
The other element that has always successfully marked Aphex Twin out is the ability to craft an album that ebbs and flows more like a traditional rock record than a techno record. For sure Aphex twin does not deal in conventional songs, but it is notable that each piece neatly dovetails with its predecessor/successor and the result is an album that is all the more enjoyable listened to as a complete conceptual piece rather than cut up and randomly dropped into an iPod playlist. The only song that jars is ‘180db’ which sounds like a night in a club filtered through the ears of an acid freak. Undoubtedly an example of James’ twisted sense of humour, it sits unevenly at the heart of the album, for the first time feeling like a novelty rather than a part of its surroundings and it serves, more than anything else, to provide a brief, unnerving bridge between the two halves of the album. Things get back on track, however, with the bizarre ‘Circlont6a’ which sounds like Depeche Mode being played backwards in a blender with its analogue synths and skittering beats. It’s a further example, as if any were needed, of Aphex Twin’s wonderfully warped world view.
Unlike most releases reviewed on SonicAbuse, ‘Syro’ does not get a track-by-track breakdown because ultimately doing so is like trying to describe the relationship between pieces of cooked spaghetti! Aphex Twin simply defies rational analysis and description and truly fits into a category of one. If you have experienced Aphex Twin before then you can rest assured that he has lost none of his flair for creating an entire alternate universe with his unhinged soundscapes. If, on the other hand, you have never experienced Aphex twin, then you owe it to yourself to do so now. A truly adventurous musician, Aphex Twin simply and proudly stands apart from every other artist working in electronic music and therefore demands your attention. Not as sprawling as ‘Drukqs’, nor as otherworldly as ‘selected ambient works vol II’, ‘syro’ is a concise summation of Aphex Twin’s many strengths and a most welcome return to the fold from one of the UK’s most energetically eclectic artists.