Aphex Twin is a human being.
Unlike so many faceless electronic artists, he has never really tried to hide this fact. He used his face as a logo, distorted or leering but always familiar. His music was complex and occasionally serrated, but also warm and frayed and personal. My favorite Aphex urban legend is that some of the tapes that became Ambient Works 85-92 were mangled by his cat. Can you imagine an Autechre album with cat mangles included? (Venetian Snares can.)
This is why I like Aphex Twin. His music is a human conversation between the artist and the listener. It is personable. When I talk about electronic artists I tend to talk about what their music sounds like, how they treat their drums and synths, how they create a musical space. When I talk about albums like SAWII or RDJ Album, I tend to talk more about the emotion of the music, or how it makes me feel. SAWII in particular is a heartbreaking, occasionally soul-wrenching piece of music, despite being a two-hour-long ambient album. It is a draining listening experience for me, one that covers an impressive amount of emotional ground. Within that album I feel is a direct link to the artist, a window into another person’s life and psyche. This is something that can be rare within the continent-sized genre that is electronic music.
But at some point in there Aphex Twin retreated from the idea of a regular album release schedule. He’s back, sorta! But things have changed.
The humanistic touches that characterized Aphex Twin’s best work have started to fall away.
On his comeback album SYRO and this new release, the Collapse EP, James has retreated inward. The sense of place and time are gone, replaced by craft.
That said, craft is something James does extremely well. That also said, the craft on display here is not noticeably more creative or interesting than anything he was doing 20 years ago. The last slew of Aphex Twin releases have been very predictable: the same fluid and ever-shifting drum programming, the same synth structures, the same atmospheres and moods. It routinely feels like an exercise. It’s to the point where it’s hard for me to view SYRO or this EP as artistic statements the same way I view all his previous albums. These new releases feel like clearing houses, like spring cleaning. James likely has hundreds or thousands of songs built up, and these new batches of songs don’t feel purposeful or progressive enough to come across like anything other than pickings from the back stock.
It’s hard to narrow down where this feeling comes from. The biggest issue for me is the lack of variety. I don’t just mean variation in tempo or mood either, I mean a variety in quality. This is a strange criticism to levy against an artist. Still, I feel these new releases suffer from a lack of Milkmen and Beetles and “Happy Birthday” answering machine messages. Past Aphex albums have had bad songs, sketches, goofs, pranks, and left-turns. The Collapse EP has no rough edges. It maintains a steady and unexciting quality that makes me yearn for a mistake or a human error. The kinds of things that are interesting to talk about. Collapse has no conversational footholds in that way. It is ceaselessly well made and in that sense, coming from a flawed, human artist like Aphex Twin, it is uninteresting.
I’m still waiting for you to truly come back, Richard. Slap that goofy grin on an album cover. Let your cat loose on those tapes. Come up with an actual song title. Or do something new! But this holding pattern era of Aphex Twin music has been nothing but disappointing for me. His music videos remain incredible though, fascinating mixtures of computer symbology and corrupted reality. They are the proof that Aphex Twin could still operate on the level I’m looking for.
Aphex Twin has seemed surprisingly quiet these past few years, despite releasing at least one record to critical acclaim and scattering hundreds of songs in the Internet’s ether (read: SoundCloud). It’s strange to see such an iconic shit-eating grin retreat from the limelight and resort to the guerrilla marketing tactics of a musical Banksy.
But maybe that’s the most emblematic place for Aphex Twin circa 2018.
Certainly, if his latest release, the Collapse EP, says anything about 2018’s Aphex Twin, it’s that his sound is maybe just as novel as anonymous, dystopic street art.
At this point, Aphex Twin’s time as the headmaster of an entire school of electronic music seems to have passed. Collapse is a competent piece of ambient electronica, but it doesn’t seem anywhere near as vital as Richard D. James Album must have been when it dropped in the mid-1990s, when those breakbeat percussions and that snappy persona must’ve breathed like fresh air.
That’s a little dismissive of Richard James, though. Since 2014’s Syro, he’s had the kind of resurgence that most artists dream of and likely won’t experience. Syro was a wide-reaching record that touched a lot of bases (read: basses – *Winks at camera*). It could be lofty and in a lot of ways felt like a cleanse for Richard James, but Syro was also one of the best electronic records that year, proving that Aphex Twin was a man of many faces (read: smiles) and was a man who understood how to be comfortable in all of those faces.
Collapse, as an EP, is understandably more condensed than Syro. While it has a token dynamism – I almost want to dare someone to try and find two ten second snippets of Collapse that perfectly align – Collapse feels far more singular. It’s dystopic in tone, with minor-range synthesizers providing some narrative and melodic heft to Aphex Twin’s usual percussion, and while the occasional vocal bleeds through the ether, there’s a fairly steady tone to most of Collapse.
Steadiness, in Collapse’s case, is obviously relative, however. “Steadiness” for Aphex Twin is probably best viewed as the average of two poles.
Any single track on Collapse swings listeners from one side to another as James plays off of all his normal fantasies.
There are the quiet moments – the lead in for “MT1 t29r2,” a church hymn also in “MT1 t29r2,” the JRPG post-apocalyptic hellscape of “pthex” – and each one of those moments neatly segue into a traditional Aphex Twin-ian percussive array.
The Aphex Twin of 2018 does feel more artificial, though. Richard D. James Album played off of the same dynamism of Collapse but added a childish flare that honestly feels absent in Collapse. RDJ, through the addition of strings in, say, “Girl/Boy Song” and actual children in “To Cure a Weakling Child,” felt playful. Collapse, meanwhile, stays those impulses for something more anonymous and mature.
Maturity isn’t a bad word for Aphex Twin, but Collapse underscores what was maybe lost in maturation: joy, levity and a shit-eating grin. His music is as clever and anonymous as a logo etched into a metro wall.