Explaining why Aphex Twin is such a monumental figure in electronic music is like trying to define a word that can only be defined using the word itself in the definition. He simply is electronic music. His music can feel like the primary colors from which all other hues derive. Or, it can feel like an insular cache of inspiration, hidden behind layers and layers of obfuscation and misdirection. He didn’t invent electronic music, or even popularize it, but his albums form some of the essential foundations of its modern form.
His early ambient work felt handcrafted and ancient, full of very human-sounding mistakes and misfires (some of the cassette tapes that would eventually become his first two albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Selected Ambient Works Volume II, were reportedly chewed up by his cat). His mid-period work went digital, and explored the kinds of inhuman sounds that computers can create when pushed to their limits. The grinding scrape of sped-up drum sequencers that originated during this period has become his calling card, and it has also become one of the main stepping off points for modern trap and EDM music. Even the last album he released, 2001’s Druqks, influenced a generation of beatsmiths by opening the door to quiet pieces of introspection and how they can coexist beautifully with grinding, smashing noise.
13 years after that last batch of genius, Aphex Twin returns with the much less monolithic SYRO. The important thing to note is that none of the Aphex Twin trademarks have gone away in the last decade and change: SYRO is odd, and funny, and warm. It feels, like all of Aphex Twin’s best music, like something made in a vacuum solely for the performer to obsess over and enjoy. And, despite all that, it comes across as perhaps the most accessible album in his discography. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s straightforward, as each song feels like a spectrum of ideas and sounds that’s constantly being shifted and realigned to some new off-kilter angle. It just means that SYRO hews closer to the rainy moods and simple pleasures of albums like Richard D. James Album and Selected Ambient Works 85-92 rather than the aggressive experimentation of …I Care Because You Do and Drukqs. It feels like the pleasant introduction to Aphex Twin’s music that it will undoubtedly become for so many new fans who remain unaware of the long-quiet artist’s body of work.
One of the album’s largest strengths is that it sounds completely untouched by contemporary trends. The mountain of synthesizers and drum sequencers that went into its creation have resulted in an album that feels timeless, and one that seems like it could have been released at any point in Aphex Twin’s career. The dark, echoing synth blurts that drive “produk 29” don’t sound dated or new, they sound like the instant signifier of James’ hands at work that they’ve always been. The angelic chords that counteract them stem directly from SAW 85-92, but the arrangement displays the kind of tesseract-like complexity that characterizes later Aphex releases.
Therein lies my problem with SYRO: for how much it sounds like an Aphex Twin release, it doesn’t display those sparks of genius that made all his previous efforts so rewarding. The 10 minute “XMAS_EVET10[Thanaton3 Mix]” is beautiful and utterly confident, but for all its variety it never builds to anything resembling the ache or catharsis of Aphex Twin’s usual material. Whether because of its clarity or its relative simplicity, it doesn’t give as much to chew on as even the most straightforward early tracks that, stewed in reverb and mystery, once did. The Aphex Twin of 15 years ago didn’t make accessible music, he made difficult music that was so entrancing that it forced you into appreciating it on the same level as pop music despite the gap in complexity and intent. SYRO doesn’t follow that same formula, and it feels worse off because of it.
A key example: “CIRCLONT14[shrymoming Mix]” farts and sighs in ways only an Aphex Twin song can, and it’s a beautiful piece of work in its own right. It just doesn’t feel like a fart I can live inside. Like a fart that captures some aspect of life that had gone uncaptured until Aphex Twin got his hands on it. It’s inconceivable that SYRO would sound like Aphex Twin’s old work after 13 years of suspense and misdirection, but it drifts just close enough to the old masters that the intangibles that were lost are all the more apparent.
“When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.”
― Miles Davis
I like to imagine Miles Davis being a huge source of inspiration for Aphex Twin. They both have similar views on music, mysterious approaches to discovering new possibilities, and creating music is their true passion. SYRO is the latest record by Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James) and it’s in a master class of electronic music.
SYRO starts off things right, beginning with a “bad boy” electric vibe with “Minipops 67”. That tone hits you instantly. If “Rebel Without a Cause” was made 59 years later, this would be playing through Jim Stark’s headphones constantly. This brooding vibe continues throughout the whole song, but it does ascend into this post-modern dystopian hellish sound, where the vocals can really catch you off guard. Yeah, vocals always catch you off guard in electronic music, but it doesn’t hit you quite like this.
The next track, “Xmas_Evet10”, carries on where “Minipops 67” left off. Dark, mysterious, but somehow ethereal. The drums really bring it out in this track: syncopated beats and light snare hits really move the song forward. The only real part of this song I didn’t care for is the middle section. It felt like it was “electronic meets post-rock” and dragged on a bit too long. Eventually it went back to its dissonant self, full of dark glory.
The following three tracks are my favorites on this album. “Produk 29” smashes a fucking hammer in your face with a groovy bassline and poppy drums. It follows with lush synths and a chord progression that made me blush. It reminds me of the steampunk nature in Final Fantasy VII, especially when you’re still in Midgar. Nevertheless, it still sounds like something new and innovative, something Aphex Twin seems to do with every release he’s ever had. “- 4 Bit 9d Api+e+6” has a rolling percussive verse, followed by these synthy, melodic, declaratory parts. It’s just something you want to dance to with the lights turned off. “180db_ ” kicks off with a beat and synths that remind me of the movie Blade Runner. Remember when you first see the city? That’s what this sounds like. Its futuristic cloud-like clubby repetition never ceases to lose my attention. Doesn’t progress a whole lot, but it doesn’t have to with a melody like that.
SYRO‘s 2nd half builds on the mysterious vibe the 1st half created, but at times it can be too much. “Circlont6a” is an exception with its perfectly weird leads and loaded instrumentation. “Fz Pseudotimestretch+e+3” doesn’t seem to capture me in any way, it feels like there’s nothing there to really listen to. It’s like SYRO was reading directions off a map and took a wrong turn. Luckily, it turns around. Another exception, “Circlont14”, moves me with a bold and brash direction towards a utopian paradise. This is a fresh change to the album, even though I wanted it to stay dark and hellish. “Syro U473t8+e” bored me quite a bit. It felt way too static, and did nothing to entertain. The synth leads don’t change much when they really should. The Percussion just seems confusing and stagnant, and also does nothing to change.
Thankfully, “Papat4” changes things around a little bit. Echo-y bits all over the place, and electrifying drums push it to a level of pure electronic ecstasy. It felt like the UFO from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was getting tickled, and this song was its mighty laugh. “S950tx16wasr10” was a little too droney for what it should have been. The African-like rhythms don’t go well with the minimalist melodic structure. It does pick up about a minute and a half into the song, however. The melody becomes a bit clearer, and the rhythms a bit more based, but not enough to recapture me.
The final song, “Aisatsana”, is the song the credits roll to at the end of a great film. A beautifully played piano melody floats through you like November winds rustling against your hair. It’s a great way to end a great album. SYRO is a great record.