Here’s how fucking weird 2014 is: Aphex Twin returned from a decade-long exile with a new album, and the thing sounds comforting. If you’re old enough, you probably remember hearing a new Aphex track for the first time and having the old “Wh-wh-what the fuck is happening here?!?” reaction. He made music that sounded impossible, music that seemed like it wasn’t supposed to exist. The first time I heard “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” on headphones, I felt like my brain was breaking; something like that didn’t seem like it could be real. Even when Aphex would make pretty music in the past, it would feel like a disruption, a hard left turn from whatever came before. Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is one of the all-time best albums to fall asleep to, but it once seemed unbelievably strange that a rave producer (which is what Richard D. James once was) could make these extended ambient tones that would ripple and sustain and still somehow engage for 10 minutes at a time. “Avril 14th” is a shatteringly beautiful piece of music, but its spare piano plinks make for a stark contrast from the sputtering, gibbering, head-ripping drill-‘n’-bass that made up much of 2001’s Drukqs, Aphex’s last proper album. (I have a vivid memory of listening to Drukqs on headphones next to a construction site, not always being able to tell which sounds were Aphex and which were actual jackhammers.) And now Aphex Twin has made a warm, welcoming, genuinely lovely album that still sounds like Aphex Twin, and in its way, that feels like the hardest left-turn of all.
To put things in some perspective, imagine if someone had told you, even a couple of months ago, of the existence of a 10-minute Aphex Twin track called “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix].” Everything about that little factoid should prepare you for car alarms, for cats-fucking noises, for vast globular bass-bursts and drums that sound like they’re coming from every direction at once and attempting to pry open your skull. You should read that title and curl up into a fetal ball on the floor, clutch the sides of your head, and prepare for total annihilation. But the real “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]” doesn’t hammer or scrape. It burbles pleasantly along with an unhurried sort of grace. There are jittery computer noises in there, but there are also glacial synth tones and windchime sounds and, toward the end, actual human female “la-la-la” vocals. The drums don’t jar; they ping and nudge, bringing a gentle sort of funk. It’s not like Richard D. James has suddenly decided to make his answer to Boards Of Canada’s Music Has A Right To Children; the track twists and wriggles and never entirely sits still. But it never triggers that panic impulse that Aphex used to target so regularly. Instead, it evokes a feeling of blissful nostalgia, a feeling that James has never had any use for before.
In its way, SYRO plays like a meandering trip through James’ back catalog in particular and through the history of British dance music in general. At various points, we hear the 303 squelches of acid house, the falling-all-over-themselves breakbeats of hardcore rave and early jungle, the shimmering hums and whirs of ambient house, and the blorps and frizzes of that first wave of so-called intelligent dance music, the one that James helped to usher in in the first place. But this isn’t a history lesson, and James isn’t regurgitating these sounds. If anything, he’s refracting them through the prism of his own intensely personal aesthetic, the one that nobody else can really pull off. If you’re listening for them, it’s possible to hear echoes of Aphex disciples like Caribou or Burial or even Hot Chip at their most playful amidst all those other sounds. More likely, though, it’s Aphex’s own sound, thrown out and coming back like a boomerang. I have a hard time imagining Richard D. James even listening to any music made after 2000. It seems more likely that he’s just finding new ways to arrange the sounds that have been playing in his head for decades.
Of all Aphex’s past works, SYRO is probably tonally closest to Selected Ambient Works 85-92, probably still the man’s single greatest work. It has that same sense of otherworldly calm, of floating on bliss-waves that humans are only beginning to discover. The individual sounds on SYRO, the isolated blips and blorps, are simply beautiful, and there’s plenty of vintage analog equipment in the vast list of gear that James used to make the album. But SYRO doesn’t have the calm of that first SAW. It wriggles and darts and evades your mental grasp. The tracks are so much more layered than what James was doing way back then that you can get lost in even the sleepiest moments. At any given moment, there’s a keyboard squiggle or two that’s just bouncing off in every direction. These tracks are so busy, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine any human being keeping track of all the moving parts, let alone arranging them so artfully into something so soothing.
James has been doing interviews again lately, and in those interviews, he comes off as something of a pleasant, semi-retired middle-aged crank. He complains about having to wake up early to take his kids to school. He’s surprised that anyone would care about buying a new album from him, that his longtime label would even be interested. He tried to see vocal fan Skrillex at Glastonbury, but it took forever to walk across the festival grounds and Skrillex was done by the time he got there. James also talks about how he’s been recording all these tracks over the years, how it’s such a pain in the ass to finish an album when he’d rather just start another new track. Talking about this stuff, he sounds like a dad who watches home-improvement shows and constantly putters around the house but never finishes fixing the cabinets or whatever. In this case, though, he’s an OCD genius who just can’t sit still long enough to finish up a full-length cohesive statement. But now he has.
SYRO, in its way, is a compilation, just like that first Selected Ambient Works collection was. It collects a pile of the tracks he’s been working on all these years, and it’s one of a near-infinite number of Aphex albums that could exist, given all the music he’s got laying around. He talks about this album as a gigantic shrug, as his attempt to get some of this stuff out so he can put an end-cap on this phase of his career. It doesn’t play like that, though. It plays like a careful, considered collection of moods and thoughts and ideas. The album might not have some classic arc, at least one that I’ve been able to suss out yet, but there’s an intuitive fluidity to the way it unfurls. And then there’s the ending: A gorgeous minimal Satie-esque piano piece, called “aisatsana ” and dedicated to his wife. It might be the most nakedly sentimental thing this man has ever committed to wax. And if it’s an indication that James is willing to publicly become a big old softie, that this is a side of himself he’s comfortable expressing in his music, then I can’t wait to hear what he comes out with next.
SYRO is out 9/23 on Warp. Stream it below.