Richard David James is electronic music’s Loki. He’s a genius, a prankster, a recluse, and a mystery. His iconic logo and devilish grin have adorned some of the most singular and influential releases of the last 30 years, and he reportedly sits on a veritable mountain of unreleased concoctions. He has left his mark on a staggering array of genres, from ambient and drone on through jungle and techno and even modern classical. He has taken on a multitude of aliases (many of which are only rumored to actually be him), but his work as Aphex Twin is both his most prolific and his most impressive. It is here, across these many singles, EPs, and albums, that history most clearly continues to be made. Consider this guide a mere scratch of the surface.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
Culled, as most Aphex Twin albums are, from various home recordings, SAW 85-92 is both undeniably essential and surprisingly unrepresentative of the Aphex Twin identity as a whole. Though nominally an ambient album, the cassette tape recordings collected here have more in common with minimalist techno and dance music than the more traditionally wallpaper-esque songs found on SAW’s 2nd installment. The simple beats and buoyant bass lines are also a far cry from the grinding schizophrenic skullfuckery that James would employ during much of the rest of his career. Rather, SAW 85-92 is rainy, calm, and beautiful. It sees the inexperienced auteur softly experimenting with ingredients that would become mainstays during the rest of his career, most notably vocal loops, analog imperfections, and a creative process that turns a range of influences into a strangely isolated sound.
“Ageispolis” displays a noted hip-hop influence in its straightforward drum pattern, but the achingly gorgeous strings and meandering bass lead give the song a dawn-like calm that extends to the rest of the album’s loop-based compositions. Opener “Xtal” remains one of James’ most pristine and exquisite compositions, featuring a carefree but melancholy vocal sample and plenty of stormy atmosphere smothered under beautiful, beautiful tape hiss. Occasional dips into acid techno (“Green Calx”) and pounding house music (“Ptolmey”) don’t negate SAW 85-92’s sleepy charms, and the surprisingly on-the-nose Willy Wonka sample at the center of “We are the music makers” seems like a mission statement: “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
On EP (1993)
On’s title track is James at his most serene and untouched. The piano plinks that open the track blossom into a percolating storm cloud of notes that rises to meet the song’s pounding digital drums halfway. It feels like a natural progression from the techno trappings of SAW 85-92 while also displaying a huge jump in sophistication and use of structure. The song’s music video is, likewise, an absolute classic, and it showcases James’ playful and self-aware sides while also highlighting his Cornish origins.
The rest of the EP is split between the cacophonous “73-Yips” and a pair of songs, “D-Scape” and “Xepha,” that continue the title track’s focus on combining ambient textures with monolithic drum patterns. “D-Scape” in particular sounds like an unpolished preview of the kinds of heady slabs of sound that typify James’ next major release, Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
SAW Volume II is what music sounds like in dreams. At over 2 hours in length, the pivotal double album is a haunting mood piece that demands attention as much as it diverts it. Each lengthy sketch is a masterwork in repetition and atmosphere, circling the room like a cloud of Sunday morning fog. The album is also a stunning showcase for James’ sense of melody: “Rhubarb” is an ache that, even after a single listen, will never leave you. Brian Eno’s name-making work within the genre is an undeniable touchstone for SAW II’s quieter tracks, but ideas like the enveloping arpeggios of “Curtains” give the album a uniquely Aphexian feel.
It can also be James’ most terrifying album to listen to. Songs feature strange noises that seem to constantly be pushing into the foreground even as they remain shrouded by reverb and hiss. “Mold” features a vocal sob that flirts with melody and lyricism without ever breaking through, and the aforementioned melody on “Curtains” is downright eerie. Even the most traditionally ambient pieces, like “Parallel Stripes,” sound ancient and mysterious. The entire album bears the mark of a master at work, which makes James’ radical change of style after this release a decidedly bittersweet progression.
(Note: officially, the only song on SAW II to bear an actual title is “Blue Calx.” I’ve referred to the songs by their unofficial symbol-derived names because it’s much more helpful. It’s also how I’ve always referred to them.)
…I Care Because You Do (1995)
Care is the first real salvo from James’ middle period, wherein he left behind his ambient and techno pursuits in order to truly experiment with what analog and digital synthesizers and drum machines are capable of. This first taste doesn’t push the envelope as far as future works do, but it’s a decidedly darker, more intense listen than anything he had released up to this point. He utilizes all manner of blurps and gurgles to establish his off-kilter and energetic drum patterns, and then pairs them with somber synthesized strings and distorted vocal samples. It’s a loud, uncompromising album that feels worlds removed from the gentle lullabies of SAW 85-92.
Even the album’s major single, “Ventolin,” feels like an assault. It begins with a high-pitched whine, then shatters into sharp shards of caustic drum hits and tinnitus samples. The mysterious melodies that made up previous works still rise to the surface here, but they sound sickly and pale in this more aggressive context. “Start As You Mean To Go On” could be a SAW II cut if it were slowed down by half, but here it sounds strangely energizing and unstoppable. So goes the entire album: it feels like 12 slaps in the face, but each one leaves you asking for more after the pain subsides. Well, let’s call it 11 slaps considering that album closer “Next Heap With” is a gorgeous composition for string samples only. It feels like the resolution to something that had seemingly spiraled too far out of control to ever be reined back in, but the strutting stabs that pop up around the 1 minute mark sound like a victory march and don’t leave much room for doubt
Donkey Rhubarb EP (1995)
If James’ signature sense of playfulness seemed in short supply on …I Care Because You Do, the Donkey Rhubarb EP brought it roaring back in stunning fashion. Over a gurgling, sprightly melody, James layers on bouncing rhythm after bouncing rhythm until the song feels ready to explode outward in a thousand different directions at once. At its heart it’s one of his strongest pop creations, but it obfuscates all that under James’ signature production style. The music video is notable for being one of the first to feature a recurring trope: the transplantation of James’ grotesquely grinning face onto otherwise cute characters (in this case, dancing teddy bears).
The EP is otherwise notable for featuring a Philip Glass-orchestrated remix of …I Care’s “Icct Hedral.” It’s evidence that the heavily thought-out music that James was releasing as Aphex Twin was making waves beyond just the electronic music circles you might expect. This connection between the worlds of avant-garde electronic music and modern classical seems to presage the prepared piano pieces on James’ 2001 double album Druqks, not to mention 1996’s timeless “Girl/Boy Song.”
Girl/Boy EP (1996)
The Girl/Boy EP is a scintillating taste of the upcoming, era-defining Richard D. James Album. It features that album’s “Girl/Boy Song,” a beautiful mixture of one of James’ strongest string melody and some of his finest, most textural drum programming. It’s among his most moving songs, and as it slides gently into a morose repetition of its melody near its end, it breaks through the prankster facade that typifies much of James’ output during this era. It sounds just as gorgeous as the rain-streaked compositions on SAWs I and II, but it showcases a notable leap in complexity and confidence.
The rest of the EP takes the opposite tact by reinforcing said prankster facade and, for the first time ever, featuring James’ vocals. “Milk Man” is a disturbing, funny little pop concoction that slides by on a wink and a nod and sees James pushing his drum machines past their breaking point, and “Beetles” is a disappointingly short piece of paranoia that sounds like James’ attempt at rewriting A Scanner Darkly. The EP is rounded out by a couple of short, percussive remixes of “Girl/Boy” and by the churning, atonal “Inkey$.”
Richard D. James Album (1996)
Richard D. James Album is perhaps THE definitive Aphex Twin album. It captures, to some extent, everything that makes his music unique and engrossing. Hell, it’s all there in opener “4”: the touching string melodies, the frantic breakbeats, the cheeky sense of humor, the rain-soaked atmosphere. The rest of the disc then explores these different facets in full, though no song ever pushes any one element out of the mix. “Cornish Acid” is a showcase for James’ ability to turn a fluttering non-rhythm into a head-bobbing masterpiece, while “Peek 824545201” recontextualizes that same idea by sapping all the definition and power from the drums and turning them into a series of intercom squawks.
“To Cure a Weakling Child” and “Goon Gumpas” form the album’s sugary center, all smiles and pre-adolescent half-memories. “Weakling Child” takes a toy-filled nursery and turns it on its side to let all the Fisher Price ephemera cascade to the floor. The toddlerified vocal sample is one of the most innocent and sweet to ever grace an Aphex song. “Gumpas” feels even more bittersweet as it gently floats through the air like the theme song to some long-forgotten children’s show. The skittering drums then return for the album’s back half, which includes the unforgettable “Girl/Boy Song” and the fiercely odd and strangely touching “Logon Rock Witch,” which uses slide whistles, church organs, and mouth harps to stumble through its oscillating, melancholy reverie. It’s a strangely touching end to an album that feels far too short at only just over half an hour long.
Come to Daddy EP (1997)
The tossed-off death metal parody that is “Come to Daddy (Pappy Mix)” is perhaps less important than the video it spawned, which features a skeletal Aphex Twin monster and an army of James-faced children terrorizing an elderly woman outside a rundown British housing complex. The song itself is a ridiculous piece of loud nothingness that was never meant to be released and which features the indelible lyric “I want your soul.”
The rest of the lengthy EP is much more traditionally Aphexian, featuring the gentle piano washes of “Flim” and the clattering, clanging drums of “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball.” The disintegrating synth melodies on “IZ-US” feel like a response to fellow electronic artists Boards of Canada, with whom Aphex Twin would soon share a home on the now-legendary label Warp Records.
Windowlicker EP (1999)
Though “Windowlicker” and its infamous video appeared relatively late in Aphex Twin’s career, it has since become his defining moment as an artist. It is less a pop song than it is the essence of a pop song stretched like taffy and left to soak in its own juices. It is incredibly sexual, not only for its porn-sourced moans and coos but also for the way it thrusts and lingers in its own self-created post coital malaise. As it erupts into an orgasmic cloud of billowing noise and melody near its end, it marks the very high point of Aphex Twin’s career. His music never sounded more assured in its own unique direction and sound. It is without a doubt one of the best starting points for a new Aphex listener even if it sounds, undeniably, like a climax.
The EP is rounded out by the frantic tangents of the appropriately titled “[Equation]” and the music box melodies of the nocturnal “Nannou.” That last song presages the even more somber piano compositions that would eventually make Druqks such a shockingly tender and personable album. Here, the gentle plinks still feel like a smaller part of a traditional Aphex Twin composition. The hint of breathing room is, at this point, still just that: a hint.
Though not quite the imposing monolith that SAW II remains, Druqks is a monster of a double album whose ideas feel even more obscured and sabotaged than they had on previous releases. It is split between short compositions for prepared piano (including the astounding “Avril 14,” whose timeless melody was sampled by none other than Kanye West for his song “Blame Game”) and incredibly dense slabs of drum machine abuse and ambiance. The cryptic song titles and double album format have given rise to all kinds of rumors about its layout and intention, including a popular theory that the album was meant to be listened to with both discs playing simultaneously on different speaker systems. Taken on its own though, it’s a punishing but rewarding listen that seems like the clearest excursion into James’ cluttered mind that he ever put together.
If Druqks is best known for its quieter pieces, it’s not only because of their relative novelty. The melodies and countermelodies that James teases out of his prepared pianos and harmoniums are all expertly crafted, and they establish a melancholy atmosphere that aches and yearns in ways much different than the similar pieces on SAW II. “Btoum-Roumada” captures the lonely clang of church bells in its silvery tones, while opener “Jynweythek” sounds like it’s struggling with itself as it coughs and sputters out its slowly-building melody. “Nanou 2” displays a noted Satie influence, but its well-plucked chords feel perfectly at home amongst monstrous, futuristic glitchfests like “Mt Saint Michel Mix + Saint Michaels Mount” and the goldilocks-obsessed “54 Cymru Beats.” There’s even a touching rendition of “Happy Birthday” delivered by James’ parents via answering machine message on “Lornaderek.” In between all these fractured ideas, a clearer picture of the artist known as Aphex Twin starts to emerge. By creating an insurmountable labyrinth of ideas and sounds, James gave the world its clearest self-image yet, and one that gets by just fine without that trademark grin.